Spanish Language Learning Resources

This article was published by Nomadtopia Collective, on their website, 2021-09-27.

As of 2020, the Spanish language reportedly has 489 million native speakers and 586 million total speakers worldwide, making it the second most spoken native language and the fourth most spoken language overall. Moreover, it is the official national language of Spain as well as the 17 non-Caribbean sovereign Latin American countries, with the exception of Brazil (where they mostly speak Portuguese). In the United States, especially in the Southwest, Spanish usage continues to grow, as the region becomes increasingly bilingual, reflected in everything from product packaging to the curriculums of public and private schools. Of the countless human languages currently employed in the world, Spanish clearly is of great importance based on sheer usage alone.

For digital nomads and other travelers — particularly those venturing "south of the border" — basic Spanish fluency can significantly improve the travel experience, allowing one to more easily read monolingual websites of regional airlines and bus services, interact effectively with doctors and other medical staff, understand street signs and restaurant menus, feel more confident exploring unfamiliar cities, talk comfortably with locals and Latin American travelers, and garner their respect by demonstrating the effort you have made in learning their primary language.

Traditional methods of learning Spanish include reading instruction books, listening to audio training courses, attending Spanish language schools, and participating in their immersion programs. For people who don't feel comfortable using computers or the Web, the traditional options can prove more than adequate. But for the rest of us, the Internet has introduced alternative ways of learning the language that are much more convenient and less costly, including entirely free programs. In this article, I will review (in alphabetical order) all of the major online Spanish language instructional systems that I have encountered — and in many cases, tried out — during my studies.

123TeachMe

123TeachMe logo

Apparently targeted at teachers and their students, 123TeachMe claims to be "the largest website in the world for learning Spanish", providing more than 54,000 audio files (organized into 600 grammar units), 30,000 flashcards, more than 500 Spanish lessons, more than 3000 quizzes, hundreds of games, 520 dialogues and 410 monologues recorded in more than a dozen countries, and more than 20,000 pages of content. Much of it is free, and the rest is available only to subscribers who pay for the extra content, either in the form of their Premium Content Package (on either a monthly or yearly plan) or their Education Package (which allows access to the content for every student in your school). The premium packages give access to all the content, free of advertising. Rather unhelpfully, the prices do not appear to be listed anywhere on the website.

The site does make available a verb conjugator, a sentence maker (i.e., a translator of whatever phrase you enter), and a directory of Spanish language schools in 20 countries (which can be sorted by cost or quality rating).

In addition, there is a Spanish placement test you can use to assess your current level of proficiency with the language. I found taking the test to be both challenging and humbling, and yet it reported my overall Spanish level to be "Advanced 2" (which just goes to show that you can't trust everything you see on the Internet!).

AmazingTalker

One-on-one instruction with a dedicated tutor is considered by many people (especially tutors!) to be the most efficient way to learn a new language, partly because they can immediately detect and gently correct any errors in your diction and pronunciation. But travel to a foreign language school can be prohibitively expensive due to your budget or simply impossible due to your outside responsibilities. Fortunately, tutoring over the Internet solves these problems. Many websites now make it easy for you to connect with language tutors, including native speakers living in the primary countries of your chosen language.

AmazingTalker offers tutors in dozens of languages, including Spanish, and dozens of academic subject areas. For any language or subject area, the website lists all of the applicable tutors, their photos and self-descriptions, the rates they charge, and their work calendar for scheduling a session. You do not have to prepay for multiple sessions, but instead pay for each one as you go. If for some reason you are not satisfied with a particular lesson, the company offers a free lesson with a different tutor or credit for a future lesson. If you are having difficulty selecting a tutor, AmazingTalker has a quick questionnaire in which you specify your age range, the types of lessons you're interested in, your preferences for morning/afternoon/evening and weekday/weekend, your budget for each 50-minute lesson, whether you want a tutor who speaks English or another language, and optionally if you have additional requests of the tutors — and the website will do its best to match you up with the most suitable tutor.

Anki

Anki logo

Using flashcards is one of the oldest methods for learning a new language — especially the more atomic parts, such as individual words and common phrases, because they fit nicely on the sides of a card (English on one side, and the foreign translation on the other). One advantage that flashcards have over other methods is that as you work your way through a deck of cards, you can quickly set aside any word or phrase that you confidently feel you have learned well, and then with each subsequent pass through the ever-diminishing deck in hand, you move through them in less time, and you progressively cull the stack to just those most challenging cards yet to be learned.

Anki is arguably the ultimate flashcard system for learning languages or any other topic that can be represented on cards. Developed and released as a free open-source tool in the mid-2000s, by Damien Elmes, Anki is not limited to two words or phrases per entry, but instead can have multiple fields associated with each entry — much like the fields in a database record — thus allowing two or more fields to be represented as a flashcard. For instance, one field could be an English word, the second field its Spanish translation, and the third field an audio file of a native speaker saying the word in Spanish.

The desktop program Anki App runs on Windows, macOS, and Linux machines. The source code of the program can be downloaded from the GitHub repository and the installable program from the main website. In addition, if you are away from your laptop and thus don't have access to the desktop program, you can still use and synchronize your flashcards over the Web, using AnkiWeb. For use on a smartphone, it is best to use a dedicated app, for either Android or iOS.

Naturally, you can create your own flashcards. But for learning a foreign language, it's much more efficient to utilize pre-existing vocabulary decks, including many for Spanish. Individuals can and have created a wide range of flashcard decks, which can be shared with anyone over the Internet. The Anki community is large, with its own subreddit.

Anki is well known for its spaced-repetition methodology, in which any word to be learned appears less frequently as time goes on. More specifically, the Anki App can try to optimize when you repeat virtual flashcards, so you see and are prompted to recall words just as you’re about to forget them. Users have found that the average time cost of learning a new word turns out to be 1-2 minutes total.

Assimil

Assimil logo

Recommended to me by a German polyglot, Assimil is a French company that offers foreign language courses that use conversations for instruction, instead of the usual (drudgery of) word lists. It bills itself as "Europe's top language learning method". You can choose from 13 source languages (for most readers of this article that will be English) and 81 languages you may want to learn — from Albanian to Yiddish — at four possible levels. As one would expect, Assimil offers Spanish products in English — specifically six products, all at the beginner level (more correctly, "Beginner & False beginner", whatever that means).

Their products are reasonable in cost. For instance, the Spanish "superpack" is priced at less than 75 euros and comprises one book, four audio CDs (presumably for ancient PCs), and a USB stick with MP3 files (for those of us living in the 21st century). According to the website, "The recordings include all the texts in Spanish for each lesson and the translation exercises from the book. These progressively more challenging texts have been recorded by professional native speakers."

Audiria

Audiria logo

Some people simply don't have time to use their computer or smartphone for learning a new language, nor to attend courses at a local (or overseas) school. But if they must spend a substantial amount of time driving, cycling, or walking, they can at least listen to audio programs. A no-cost option in this category is Audiria, which offers a free podcast series for all levels of Spanish language learners. Each one is tagged on the basis of language complexity.

The main content is divided into 840 chapters, and Audiria also offers dozens of tests (ten random questions each), hundreds of phrases, idioms, tips, and pitfalls. The most recent chapter was published in February 2013, so there may not be further fresh content added in the future, but languages don't expire.

Babbel

Babbel logo

Using a mix of vocabulary, pictures, interactive dialogues, multiple choice exercises, and reviews, Babbel covers a dozen languages — including Spanish — with an emphasis on preparing the student for real-world usage through realistic scenarios and conversational examples. Like other advanced commercial products, Babbel uses speech recognition to test the student's pronunciation.

Babbel offers various subscriptions under two types of plans. The "app plan" gives unlimited access to hundreds of lessons, for four different durations — with the best value at 12 months for $83.40. The app runs on Android and iOS smartphones. The "live plan" gives access to those lessons as well as live virtual classes taught by language teachers, available on a variety of days, times, and proficiency levels.

Beelinguapp

Beelinguapp logo

As children, we don't learn our native languages by memorizing vocabulary lists or studying language lessons on a computer or smartphone. Instead — aside from listening to and trying to talk with family members — we read books and listen to a variety of media, including music with lyrics. This latter approach is what is utilized by Beelinguapp.

Their website states that "We use the neuroscience of language acquisition, the simplest way to gain understanding and develop fluency. Using the parallel texts method, we unlock the brain's natural ability to learn languages in context." Specifically, their mobile app presents stories and news articles, with the text in your own language (you can choose from ten, including English) and that of the language you wish to learn (you can choose from 14, including Spanish). This allows you to not only see the spelling of the foreign words and the way they are structured in sentences, but also how they parallel their English counterparts. Moreover, the foreign text is narrated by a native speaker, allowing you to learn the pronunciation — made easier by a karaoke-style animation that moves through the text of both languages. You can add words to a custom glossary, and you can practice words with virtual flashcards.

The app is available for both Android and iOS smartphones. In terms of cost, Beelinguapp does offer free stories, news, and vocabulary; a premium subscription (the price apparently is not listed on the website) adds more content, removes all advertising from within the app, and allows you to study multiple languages. On the Google Play Store and Apple Store, as well as in a Lifehacker article, some users have commented that the parallel text is not always very "parallel", and the sound quality of the native speech is sometimes quite poor. Nonetheless, this system is evidently working for many people, because the app now has more than 4 million users (or maybe just 4 million downloads).

Berlitz

Berlitz logo

One of the oldest names in the language learning ecosystem, Berlitz, was founded back in 1878, by Maximilian Berlitz, whose handlebar mustache was just as maximal as his name might suggest. According to their Wikipedia page, the company is now owned by a Japanese conglomerate, and it operates "more than 547 company-owned and franchised locations in more than 70 countries".

The company pioneered the development of the eponymous "Berlitz Method", which eschews the traditional grammar translation method and instead "advocates teaching through the target language only, the rationale being that students will be able to work out grammatical rules from the input language provided, without necessarily being able to explain the rules overtly."

Given the company's long history and their focus on corporate and government clients the world over, it is little wonder that Berlitz offers instruction in 55 languages, from Albanian to Vietnamese. The training sounds quite substantial. For instance, on their web page for online Spanish training, they mention private online classes, live one-on-one coaching sessions with an instructor, structured learning plans at different levels, group classes, summer camps (either private or in a group) at Berlitz locations, and a free online demo. You may be wondering, how many pesos? Prices depend upon the chosen plan, but apparently the cheapest starts at a rather steep $129 per month. In general, you know a service is probably not going to be cheap when the website says that "You can speak to an Enrollment Advisor to discuss your budget".

Busuu

Busuu logo

Like other app-based language-learning platforms, Busuu primarily consists of lessons accessed through your smartphone, audio of native speakers conversing with each other in their native tongue, and quizzes that allow you to test your newly-gained skills. One excellent feature is that, at the end of each lesson, you can practice with a native speaker, in either written or spoken conversation. Another is that some of the lessons incorporate articles and videos from The Economist and The New York Times, thereby demonstrating language usage in real-life examples. Another laudable feature is that the app (Android or iOS) allows you to study off-line, which makes learning possible even when not connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi or a data plan. There is also a web browser-based interface.

Unlike many language systems in which you only interact with a single tutor at best, or no one at all, Busuu promotes collaborative learning by allowing users to converse with one another — in the form of text chatting or voice recordings — and to correct one another's work. Consequently, every student is encouraged to tutor other people, which not only helps those who have yet to learn what you already have learned, but can help cement your new knowledge and increase your confidence in putting it to use. This community orientation is probably one reason why Busuu now boasts more than 100 million registered users.

Even though the platform has a premium membership, you can learn any of their 12 languages free of charge. This naturally includes Spanish, which is divided between the Complete Spanish online course and their Spanish for Travel course. They claim that you can "Master the Spanish language in just 10 minutes a day", but they don't specify how many centuries that would take.

Coffee Break Languages

Coffee Break Languages logo

If you don't relish the idea of spending an hour or more listening to a Spanish instructional podcast episode or audio program, consider starting your language journey with Coffee Break Spanish, which parcels out its content into more manageable audio programs of 15 to 20 minutes in length — the ideal amount of time for a coffee break, just as the name implies.

The series is intended for beginners and intermediates, and comprises 80 lessons. It was created by Radio Lingua — the same organization that offers paid courses at Coffee Break Academy and the Show Time Spanish podcast for intermediate and advanced learners.

Countdown to Spanish

Countdown to Spanish book

There are myriad books written to help you learn Spanish, intended for students at a variety of levels of current proficiency. (Many such books are supplemented with audio material, either on CDs or DVDs, or available on the Web.) For instance, consider Countdown to Spanish,

written by Gail Stein and published by McGraw-Hill in 2003. I mention it here not because it is a particularly worthy or recommendable, but rather because it is typical of such books and is one of the few Spanish instruction books that I have read.

It packs a lot of information into its 288 pages, and clearly tries to prepare a Spanish newbie for interacting with native speakers. However, like all such books, it has its flaws: I spotted several errors, and found its treatment of the subjunctive quite confused and confusing. Furthermore, the author — or the publisher — makes the preposterous claim that one could learn all the material in each chapter in only one hour. Perhaps someone could merely read a chapter in an hour, but certainly not truly learn the material well enough to recall it later. Nonetheless, one can easily imagine other books being less useful for getting readers prepared for some travel in a Latin American country or region.

Destinos

Destinos intro screenshot

Many people experienced in learning foreign languages strongly recommend that English-speaking students supplement their formal training by watching foreign movies and television shows with English subtitles enabled, and by watching American and British movies and TV shows with foreign subtitles enabled or dubbed with English dialogue. Presumably this material would be entertaining enough to maintain your attention, and yet would immerse you linguistically in everyday situations.

Some students claim that these methods have proven quite valuable, while other students complain that they learned little of the foreign language because they were much more intent on following the story. Naturally, the only way to know whether or not this method might be helpful to you, would be to try it.

A popular recommendation is the telenovela (i.e., Spanish soap opera) Destinos (Spanish for "destinations"), produced by WGBH Boston and now available from Annenberg Learner. It originally consisted of 52 half-hour video shows, to which were later added six extra episodes which provide practice material specific to various Latin American countries.

Doorway to Mexico

Doorway to Mexico logo

Many students find it difficult to learn Spanish from dry textbooks, contrived conversations and scenarios, and vocabulary lists (consisting of words most of which they will never use during an upcoming trip to a Latin American country). Such students would likely learn with greater efficiency and motivation if the instructional scenarios were much more realistic. That's the apparent aim of the audio program Doorway to Mexico.

Each episode portrays an American family trying to use Spanish in a particular scenario. Travel is the theme of the first season, which consists of 22 episodes, each one focusing on a specific topic: airports, street food, coffee shops, hotel check-in, street markets, requesting directions, restaurants, shopping, taxis, pharmacies, requesting a photo, slang, curse words, vacation rentals, conversations with cleaning staff, dating and relationships, time at the beach, car rentals, taking the Metro, visiting the doctor, Mexico City, and interacting with Mexican police. The second season covers community topics, and consists of another 22 episodes, focusing on: Día de los Muertos, telenovelas and Mexican cinema, pets, traffic accidents, high school romance, nannies, gardeners, soccer, diet and wellness, cooking lessons, undocumented immigration, wilderness hiking, border crossings, Mexican food, deportation, Mexican arts and crafts, home repair, the "fresa stereotype", car repair, beauty salons, fashion trends, and business meetings. All of this material is offered free of charge. Bonus materials — comprising Spanish-English transcripts, extended audio lessons, vocabulary keys, and PDF study guides — are available for $49 for each season or $79 for both seasons.

Duolingo

Duolingo logo

Cited on their Wikipedia page as the most popular language learning platform in the world, Duolingo has more than 40 million active monthly users and more than an incredible half a billion registered users (as of June 2021). Having launched their public release in June 2012, how did they manage to surpass all the famous and established language platforms (such as Berlitz, Pimsleur, and Rosetta Stone) in less than a decade? To put it simply, for the same reasons any other online company comes to dominate its sector: superior content, price, and delivery.

As of June 2021, Duolingo provides educational resources for learning more than 100 languages, presented in 40 interface languages. However, not all permutations are available. For instance, speakers of English can learn 45 languages, including the standard romance languages, but also television-borne languages like Klingon and High Valyrian. Students can access the content through the company's website or using mobile apps (for Android and iOS). Despite some blemishes (details below), the content is of good quality overall, and made more palatable through gamification (earning points and achievement levels, and competing with other students on leaderboards). Roughly half the revenue that supports all of this comes from advertising within the app, and most of the other half comes from users paying for "Duolingo Premium", which removes the advertising and adds additional benefits (such as progress quizzes).

Within each language, the many lessons are grouped into "skills" and represented by icons that indicate the type of skill — beginning (for Spanish) with Intro, Phrases, Travel, Restaurant, Family, etc. Within a skill, five levels can be attained (1 through 5). Over time, a completed skill will become "broken" and can be restored by repeating some of its lessons. Within Spanish, for example, there are 246 skills, and each one contains dozens of lessons — and thus there are thousands of lessons in total. Some of the questions have multiple-choice answers, but most of them either ask you to type in the Spanish sentence that you hear, or the Spanish sentence for the English sentence you read, or the English sentence for the Spanish sentence that you read. The pronunciation of just about any Spanish word can be heard by hovering the mouse pointer over that word (in the browser app) or tapping that word (in the mobile app). Most of the questions have a comment thread where users such as yourself can discuss a particular question in detail; sometimes this is even more informative than the question/answer content itself.

Despite the millions of users hitting the Duolingo servers, the product usually responds fast enough to be quite usable. However, if it seems to be especially sluggish or completely dead, or you cannot login, you can check the status page or the Reddit page for news (although most of the posts there are fairly useless).

In terms of quality, users can and do post critical comments about various flaws, such as valid translations being rejected because they have not yet been added to the database of acceptable answers. All of the Spanish audio is generated by synthetic text-to-speech software, and can vary in intelligibility; for instance, the original male voice is quite excellent, while the new child voice is at times excruciatingly loud and annoying (just like children!). The language is mostly taught by example, not explicit instruction or principles (aside from the tips), with lots of repetition. In fact, the material can become rather repetitive, and does not have a built-in mechanism for not showing words and conjugations already well learned, or even a way to manually indicate them. While Duolingo does an excellent job of teaching individual words, it leads to learning comparatively less grammar. It gives seemingly equal weight to all the different subjects, at the expense of the basics and key concepts which you need to truly communicate. For instance, direct and indirect pronouns are never explicitly identified, but instead lumped together and referred to as "small words".

Nonetheless, Duolingo offers so much material for free, and it can become rather addictive — especially when one is on a long streak (I'm now past 1000 days!). Some users like the pressure of maintaining a streak, because it compels them to not slack off. If you are a frequent traveler, you may have difficulty getting in sufficient lessons on a travel day to maintain a streak; for example, you might have to leave a housing rental very early in the morning, go to an airport that does not offer Wi-Fi, and then arrive very late at your destination city. If this is a possibility, always purchase a "streak freeze" beforehand to avoid breaking your streak. Other students don't like the pressure of maintaining a streak, because eventually they become more obsessed with that than the actual goal of learning the language, even though it does encourage consistency.

Is Duolingo the best choice for you? It could be an ideal way to begin. I found it to be fast, even fun, and a good place to start my linguistic journey. Many years ago, it taught only the basics. For instance, after I had finished working my way through the entire Duolingo Spanish series, they informed me that I had achieved 50% fluency, but I estimated the level was less than 5%, because I had learned a limited vocabulary, with only a few verbs, and those only for the present tense. Now it has been beefed up, with far more lessons.

Español Automático

Español Automático logo

Almost all of the Spanish learning systems available — including those examined in this article — are intended for beginning students who have little or no prior experience in the language. Students who have already reached an intermediate level and wish to become fluent have far fewer traditional options (although they do have more self-study options). One worth considering is the podcast Español Automático, because its host, Karo Martínez, is a polyglot who speaks four languages and is clearly dedicated to helping others reach full proficiency.

The first episode was released in April 2016, and the most recent was released in September 2021, totaling 241 episodes so far (as of this writing). According to the podcast description, in her shows, she "shares anecdotes, real-world topics, personal and professional development materials creating Spanish immersion environment to help you speak Spanish fluently and effortlessly." The series is designed for people who have a strong understanding of the basics, but imperfect communication skills. At least one reviewer commented that the narrative is entirely in clearly articulated Spanish. The podcast episodes are freely available, and instead she charges for her Spanish courses, downloadable guide, and transcripts. In addition, students can support her efforts through her Patreon page.

FluentU

FluentU logo

Some students don't learn well from reading books or even listening to audio material — especially in this era of short attention spans. For these people, there is an educational alternative, FluentU, which teaches through videos — specifically, by allowing the student to play a variety of videos in a foreign language, with all of the lyrics and narration subtitled. But these aren't your grandfather's subtitles: They are interactive captions, which allow you to click on any word to see an in-context definition, as well as example sentences. Also, the videos aren't conventional and contrived educational skits, but instead entertaining and modern music videos, news, commercials, movie trailers, and inspiring talks and other presentations. Students can easily jump forward or backward in any given video, and even auto-repeat any line. Additionally, there are quizzes to test your level of learning.

The company currently offers 12 languages, including Spanish, and an even greater number of language blogs, including several limited to international qualifying tests for proficiency. In terms of the financial cost of this system, for individual students, the monthly charge is $29.99 or $19.99 if billed annually (which includes four months for free). With either plan, you can cancel at any time, and there is a 14-day free trial. They also offer a program intended for use in schools, and the website lists some schools that have chosen the system. In this case, the pricing is $659 per year, for up to 50 students, with a 90-day free trial.

One reviewer noted that the primary strength of this program is its use of real-world visual and audio content, and that the FluentU app truly transforms these videos into a fun way to learn Spanish.

FSI, DLI, and Peace Corps

During its history of more than two centuries, the US federal government has sent to all corners of the globe countless representatives, and not all of them engaged in war. Many of those representatives needed to be able to speak the local languages, and this prompted the development of language courses by various branches of the government. Most notably, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the federal government's primary training institution for employees of the US foreign affairs community. The Defense Language Institute (DLI) is a Department of Defense (DoD) educational and research institution, which provides linguistic and cultural instruction to the armed services and other agencies. The Peace Corps is a volunteer program run by the government to provide technical assistance and cultural exchange to people outside the United States.

Although these courses are decades old and do not take advantage of new technology in format and delivery, they are still freely available. The website of Live Lingua hosts much of this material, encompassing 20 Spanish courses, 81 e-books, and 813 audio files. The website of Yojik has diligently brought together all the legacy coursework from FSI, DLI, and the Peace Corps. As noted, the material is quite dated. Worse still, it emphasizes not conversation or understanding, but instead pronunciation, inflection, and intonation. Consequently, when trying the FSI language courses, I found them to be terribly regimented, tedious, and dull. But what else would we expect from the government?

Gritty Spanish

Gritty Spanish logo

It should come as no surprise that when people use Spanish in real-life conversations, they do not sound like the professional actors, vocal talent, and computer-generated synthesized speech engines that you hear in most language instructional material. This is where the online service Gritty Spanish distinguishes itself from the competition. As its name implies, students learn Spanish the way it is spoken on the street (and not necessarily from the best part of town!). The program claims to teach everyday Spanish through entertaining and engaging stories.

The content is grouped into four packages: Basics, Beginnings, Original, and Parte II — certainly not the most descriptive of names. All four packages can be purchased for $139. The material can be accessed in a web browser from the company's website, or through Android and iOS mobile apps. In both formats, students have the ability at any point in a conversation to quickly rewind it by two seconds, in case a word or phrase was unclear. Transcripts are displayed in both Spanish and English, side by side. The app was designed to make it easy to listen to the MP3 audios and to read the transcripts (in PDF) on your phone.

The conversations are apparently quite lively, containing some curse words and adult topics, and thus this material would not be appropriate for children. In terms of the regional accents of the speakers, they come from several different countries: Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Venezuela, and Bolivia. A character from Spain may occasionally make an appearance, but aside from that the conversations are in Latin American Spanish.

Hablemos Español

Hablemos Español logo

Similar to Español Automático (described above), Hablemos Español is a podcast all in Spanish, and thus not appropriate for anyone just starting to learn the language. However, once the student has reached an intermediate level using other means, a podcast series like this can be an excellent way to practice listening and comprehending regular Spanish speech. The multilingual host of this series, Armando Negrete, engages not in teaching the language, but instead in teaching all about his country, Mexico — its culture, history, current events, and regional Spanish expressions. He does this by conveying his personal insights as a native living in the country, by telling stories, and by interviewing other native speakers.

The podcast is available in just about every format imaginable and on some of the major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. In terms of any business model, Armando does not appear to charge for any of the episodes, but he does offer separate digital marketing services from his website.

HelloTalk

HelloTalk logo

There are innumerable mobile apps that are designed to allow you to easily connect with people all over the world who want to learn your native language and at the same time are willing to help you learn theirs. Most of these apps are monetized through built-in advertisements or in-app purchases, which can distract you and slow down the learning process. Also, many of these apps do not have a large enough user base to easily allow you to find a suitable language partner. An ideal app would be free to use and have tens of millions of users. How about 30 million and growing? If that sounds worthy of your consideration, then say hello to HelloTalk.

The website claims that more than 150 languages are supported by the app, which at first glance seems like an incredible number, but perhaps that is not a critical factor in whether the app would work for you, because if you are interested in chatting online with someone in an obscure language not within those 150+, and there is at least one other person on the platform who knows that language, then as long as both of you can type your messages to one another in that language, it should work fine.

The online discussions are not limited to a standard chat interface, but is instead supplemented with tools for translation, correction, text-to-speech, transliteration, bookmarking favorites, and more. Additionally, you can post messages ("moments") — such as asking a question about language or culture — which will be seen only by native speakers of that language, who can then reply to your message. You can find fellow students ("language exchange partners") by native language, their city, their distance from you, and other search criteria.

The website also indicates that the company is based in Shenzhen, China. Moreover, they do have a blog from which one could learn more about the company and the app, which is available for Android and iOS devices. The only monetization is an optional annual VIP membership of $49.99, which confers extra benefits.

Inlingua

Inlingua logo

When we hear the phrase "foreign language school", we probably first think about the typical independent school in a foreign city that is large enough to attract tourists — especially those people who wish to devote their time overseas on learning a new language. Each school may have a permanent staff of a couple administrators and some full-time teachers, as well as a variable number of part-time teachers, who in turn may be affiliated with other schools and also do one-on-one tutoring. But for prospective students who want a more formal environment, but do not want to enroll in language courses at a major university, there are a few global language training organizations that may be just what they are looking for.

Inlingua is one such organization, with more than 250 language training locations in more than 30 countries, scattered over four continents. For instance, there are nine in the United States and 16 in Thailand. Yet the majority of their training centers are located in Europe. They offer courses for adults, children, and corporate groups. You can choose between face-to-face instruction at one of their centers or opt for instruction over the Internet. In terms of testing, not only can their instructors prepare you for taking an official test, but the company also offers free online placement tests to better determine which mode of learning would be best for you to start with. The company's website has a fair amount of information, but astoundingly no actual list of languages offered! That of course would vary from one location to the next, but certainly that wouldn't be the case for online learning. Presumably, Spanish is one of the available languages, especially as they have multiple training centers in Spain and in Latin American countries.

italki

italki logo

There are many advantages to learning a new language by working with a one-on-one instructor, even if that is done over the Internet, as opposed to reading books on your own, or listening to audio programs, or flipping through physical or virtual flashcards — methods that all require more self-motivation and discipline than possessed by most busy adults. Knowing that your instructor is expecting you at a particular date and time, and that you should have made some progress on any homework assignments since the last session, are usually more than enough to compel even the laziest student to stick with their training schedule.

Billing itself as "a global language learning community that connects students and teachers for 1-on-1 online language lessons", italki may be the most extensive and well known teacher search engine in the world. After all, they do offer more than 20,000 instructors, from 190 countries, fluent in more than 150 languages. This has resulted in more than 5 million students, from more than 180 countries. You can opt for a professional teacher or a (more affordable) community tutor. In all cases, the instructors are native speakers, and you can read their profiles, check the hourly rates they charge (standard and trial), watch videos of them, and easily switch to a different instructor if at any point you choose to do so.

On the instructor search page, the options for narrowing your search are quite extensive: the languages they teach, the other languages they speak, their country, their price range, whether or not they are a native speaker, the type of teacher (professional or community tutor, or both), the category of instruction (general, business, test preparation, kids, and conversation practice), and their availability (their general teaching schedule, or a specific time, or any instructor instantly available at the moment that you are searching).

The website also has a language test, a blog, and a community forum where users can post messages and replies. There are italki apps for both Android and iOS. If you are uncertain whether this system would work for you and you don't want to commit money just yet, consider trying it out with a community tutor.

Language Transfer

Language Transfer logo

As a native English speaker learning a Romance language, you will undoubtedly notice that there are countless words that mean the same thing in both languages and are spelled almost identically, or at least follow a pattern among most if not all that particular category of words. These words are referred to as "cognates", and they can make it easier and faster for you to learn that new Romance language, by essentially transferring your existing knowledge of English to the new language. That is the core strategy of Language Transfer, which is a series of language courses created by Mihalis Eleftheriou, a polyglot from Greece who brings a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm to his work. In interviews posted on the website, he explains that his system is designed to teach a lot of content as quickly as possible, by breaking the language down into its elements and then showing how the pieces relate within that language and its parallels with English structure. Moreover, his approach eschews rote learning and instead encourages the student to internalize the new language by examining multiple linguistic issues beyond structure.

Having worked through only the Spanish course, I can only assume that all of the other languages are taught through one-on-one conversation with a student, thereby allowing you the listener to follow that student's progress. The Spanish course comprised 90 audio tracks, which were more fun to listen to than most language audio programs, partly because of the banter between Mihalis and the student. I was pleasantly astonished as to how quickly I was adding to my Spanish vocabulary, courtesy of the cognates and the structural similarities — so much so that I was delighted to contribute to the process by editing the Spanish language course transcript from 2014.

In addition to the complete Spanish course, Mihalis offers complete Greek, German, and Swahili. Also, he offers introductory programs to Arabic, Turkish, Italian, French, and English. All of the courses are completely free of charge, with no advertising. Anyone can support his efforts financially through donations on his Patreon page or through his PayPal page.

LightSpeed Spanish

LightSpeed Spanish logo

All of the language instruction systems examined so far in this article generally utilize one or at most two methods of teaching Spanish: audio programs, interactive apps and desktop software, books, online tutors, and virtual flashcards. But if all of these methods are effective — some more so than others, depending upon the student — then wouldn't it make sense to offer most if not all of them provided by a single source? LightSpeed Spanish uses this strategy. Specifically, the company — led by two experienced Spanish instructors — provides free audio lessons, free videocasts (160 currently available, at four levels of expertise), premium lessons online (through their paid membership program, with the first month free), several books on Spanish, personal diaries and cultural insights, a mobile app for accessing videos, one-on-one and group lessons (utilizing Skype), and immersion courses in two locations (Mexico City and Madrid).

If you want to see if their approach might be suitable for you, you can listen to the free audio lessons and videos mentioned above, read the help sheets available on their website, and watch any of the seemingly hundreds of videos freely available on their YouTube channel.

Lingoda

Lingoda logo

Many students would do best with live instruction — as opposed to any of the other methodologies mentioned above — but they may be shy and consequently may not speak up in a live classroom filled with numerous other people. Yet for the same reason they could feel intimidated during one-on-one instruction, when they are the sole focus of an instructor — to say nothing of how exhausting it can be to try to speak a new language for half an hour or even a full hour. For such people, small classes could be ideal — such as two to four other students in an online classroom. As a result, the instructor's focus will be spread among several students, as will the responsibilities of answering questions posed by the instructor, as well as asking questions that other students might be wondering about but are hesitant to ask.

This is the methodology adopted by Lingoda, which does offer the more conventional one-on-one teaching, but is one of the few platforms to also support small virtual classes. They have such classes scheduled around-the-clock, thereby enabling students in any time zone and with any schedule restrictions, to be able to participate. They offer instruction in English (regular or business), German, French, and Spanish. The platform currently hosts more than 1500 native-speaking qualified teachers, and you can read their profiles and ratings prior to choosing one. Courses are aimed at six different CEFR levels of proficiency: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. In terms of pricing, the monthly classes start at $9.50 per class, and the so-called "marathon courses" start at a lower $6.75 per class because they require upfront commitment and payment for three, six, or 12 months. Both plans offer a free seven-day trial. You can download the class materials for free, including quizzes to test and practice your skills.

LingQ

LingQ logo

Given that children learn their native languages with less frustration than the average adult can learn a second language, wouldn't it be wise to do what they do? After all, the natural way to learn vocabulary, grammar, and other usage is within the context of everyday life, all the while referring to the objects and actions that matter most in their lives. In a nutshell, this is the potentially groundbreaking method used by LingQ, which essentially overlays a foreign language you are learning to the content that you are already interested in consuming — books, podcasts, email messages, and online audiovisual content in the fields of news (e.g., CNN), entertainment (e.g., Netflix), sports, technology, science, travel, politics, food, and culture. Apparently you can import any such content into the LingQ system, and it will be turned into an interactive lesson. Furthermore, you can view content from their existing course library.

They currently offer instruction in 24 languages, and have over 1 million members. LingQ claims that you will learn tens of thousands of words, and not just the hundreds taught by other vendors, partly or wholly because of their spaced repetition system (SRS). Their website also states that their machine learning algorithm will manage your content, track everything you do with it, and use that to determine which content would be best to present to you in the future. If true, then this capability could make your studies more efficient, but it also poses serious questions about privacy and how much of that tracking is communicated to the company. Apparently the system works in web browsers and in their mobile apps, and you can synchronize your progress across devices.

One language enthusiast commented that because you are consuming real world content, and not contrived exercises, using the LingQ system doesn't really feel like studying. If this approach sounds attractive to you, then you can try it for free, for up to 90 days (provided that you meet your targets — in other words, you give the product a real chance). As regards pricing, you could pay $12.99 by the month, or $11.99 if you commit to six months, or $8.99 if you commit to a whole year, or $7.99 for two years. These premium plans include all the lessons, vocabulary, audio material, full text translation and notes, vocabulary review tools, as well as some features not available in the free plan, such as unlimited vocabulary, unlimited imported lessons, off-line access using the mobile apps, and more. When you join the LingQ platform, you also get access to their global language learning community, which includes blogs, forums, and live conversations with other students.

Mango Languages

Mango Languages logo

If you have decided to learn Spanish by using an app-based system, then why not use the one that is purportedly the highest ranked of all the major language learning apps? That would be Mango Languages, which scores a rating of 4.8 stars out of 5 on App Store and 4.7 stars on Google Play Store. The comments from the users of the app are generally quite positive (and detailed enough to sound legitimate).

Mango provides instruction in more than 70 languages — more than most competing apps. The vocabulary and grammar is taught using a linguistic methodology they refer to as "Intuitive Language Construction", which apparently shows how the sentence is built up from a basic form to a more complex form, in both languages simultaneously. The speaking pronunciation and identification is based on audio recorded by native speakers, including real-life conversations. The software will prompt you with personalized reviews, in order to promote internalization of what you have just learned, and presumably also track your progress. The platform includes assessment and placement tests, unless you access it through a public library (more on that below).

The cost of the service depends upon which of the three subscription plans you choose: If you are an individual seeking access to the material for just a single language, that will cost $7.99 per month. To access all of the languages, add $10 to that monthly fee. Enterprise customers can contact the Mango sales team to find out the group cost (which allows access to all of the languages). If you opt to pay yearly instead of monthly, you will save more than one dollar per month. You can do a free lesson, to get a better sense of how it works. Last but not least, many public libraries in the United States provide Mango as a free service.

Mi Vida Loca

Mi Vida Loca

Perhaps you like the idea of learning Spanish not by memorizing vocabulary lists or engaging in other dull academic study, but instead by watching enjoyable Spanish movies or videos, or at least listening to a fun audio program. However, you may find less appealing the idea of watching IQ-depleting Spanish soap operas. If such is the case, then consider Mi Vida Loca, a free 22-episode video series produced by the BBC and set in Spain. It tries to teach basic Spanish by immersing you in a simple travel mystery. I have yet to watch this recommended series, but I can only imagine that it would be more captivating and engaging than another round of verb conjugation exercises.

Michel Thomas

Michel Thomas logo

One of the oldest names in the field of language instruction, is Michel Thomas (1914-2005), a linguist from Poland who taught foreign languages at his center in Beverly Hills and throughout the world. The Wikipedia page for him summarizes his eponymous method, most of which sounds either vague or obvious. In any case, according to that web page, he asserted that his language-teaching system would allow students to become conversationally proficient after only a few days of study, but he apparently never presented evidence in support of that ridiculous claim.

Years ago, I listened to the audio program "Spanish with Michel Thomas", which consists of conversation between him and a couple students. I found it largely useless, for several reasons: his strong Polish accent sometimes makes it difficult to understand what he is saying in English (especially when he spells a word); he overemphasizes stressed syllables; the unstructured style sometimes results in repetition; and he sometimes interrupts the students' replies. Also, in the early portion of the material, there are loud and irritating beeps added to indicate that you should pause the audio and try to answer the challenge before the student does.

Maybe the current Michel Thomas courses are of better quality. They cover 18 languages. In the case of Spanish, they comprise six audio-only programs: Start Spanish ($11.99), Foundation Spanish (which includes Start Spanish) ($100), Language Builder Spanish ($50), Intermediate Spanish ($90), Spanish Vocabulary ($75), and Insider's Spanish ($75). Those last five can be purchased together at a discounted price, as a bundle ($273). For each one, there is apparently a free lesson and a free booklet. In my view, before spending any money, it would be wise to examine the free material first to see if the current courses are any better than those of the past. Moreover, there does not seem to be any attempt to teach students how to read and write Spanish.

The Mixxer

There are many language exchange sites that connect you the student with an instructor fluent in whatever language you want to learn, and then continue to charge you, usually on a monthly or hourly basis, a fee for the lessons and presumably maintaining that connection. In addition, the site may provide word lists, audios, videos, and other content to help justify that fee. But once you have found an instructor whom you wish to continue working with, then you two could presumably exchange contact information and then continue your lessons away from the original platform where you met — possibly at a lower cost to you, if that platform is taking a cut from what the teacher charges you. In fact, would you be willing to spend an equal amount of time teaching the instructor your own language, if it were to completely eliminate that fee?

That's the idea behind The Mixxer, a free language exchange website created by Dickinson College, "designed to connect language learners around the world so that everyone is both student and teacher". There is absolutely no charge to register and begin seeking a language partner so the two of you can each practice using and improving the native language of the other person. The informal conversations take place online, using Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom, or the chat app of your choice. The feedback is not limited to voice only, in that the platform encourages students to write text and receive corrections from their partners.

There exists an Android app, but its poor ranking and comments suggest that you may be better off sticking with the website. I was curious to see how many potential partners there are who are fluent Spanish speakers and wish to practice English, but there did not appear to be a way to do that without registering a new account or using a Google or Facebook account to log in.

Mondly

Mondly logo

Duolingo is not the only language platform that tries to make the learning process more enjoyable through gamification. Mondly, whose motto is "Play your way to a new language", awards points for completing lessons, tracks your progress up through various levels, and allows you to compete with other users on a leaderboard. The service has won several awards, and makes it possible to learn various languages on any Internet-connected laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Oddly, though, the website boasts of 41 languages, while their Wikipedia page and the Android app page and iOS page mention only 33. Regardless, Spanish is one of them. Yet my only concern is that, according to at least one online review, the Spanish is European and not Latin American.

The website states that they offer "36 vocabulary builders to install words fast" (install them in your brain or in your account?), "41 real conversations to give you fluency", and "50 topics to prepare you for the most common situations" — although it is not clear exactly what those mean. The platform also has verbal conjugation tables, grammar information, and daily lessons. The flagship product is an app that integrates chat bot and speech recognition technologies to provide feedback on student input. The "Mondly Kids" product is an app intended for toddlers and other young children. "MondlyVR" works with several leading virtual reality devices. "MondlyAR" tries to create an immersive experience of learning a new language in "augmented reality", as an avatar instructor brings virtual objects into the room, using them as props to encourage conversation. Without actually trying out these products, it would be difficult to assess whether they are truly effective or instead just attempting to impress potential customers with shiny new technologies.

Mondly offers both free and paid content. For Spanish, the former category includes daily lessons, weekly quizzes, and monthly challenges. But to gain access to the premium content, you will have to pay a monthly fee of $9.99. If you are willing to pay for a full 12 months, then you receive a hefty discount, because the price tag of $47.99 works out to less than four dollars per month. If you sign up for that latter deal upon your first visit to the website, then you will receive access to all 33 languages.

Pimsleur

Pimsleur logo

One of the oldest companies in the language instruction arena is Pimsleur, which was founded in the early 1960s — three decades before the advent of the Web and smartphone apps. Back then, language-teaching material was typically in the form of books, pamphlets, and workbooks — largely supplanted later by cassette tapes, then CDs, and eventually DVDs (large enough to contain multimedia-rich computer programs). Nowadays, Pimsleur still sells their audio-only content, on CDs and as MP3 files. This audio material is completely consistent with the "Pimsleur method", in which you learn a new language not by studying vocabulary lists but instead by listening to native speakers. Their Latin American Spanish language products are grouped into the "Complete Course", levels 1-5, consisting of 150 lessons, available on CDs ($1190) or as MP3 files ($550). They also have "Premium" courses, also in 150 lessons, but confusingly there is no explanation as to how these differ from that first category. Lastly, they still sell some old introductory audio programs, but those tend to be a poor choice because they only teach some basics.

The company also offers content online, with two different subscription plans: For Latin American Spanish, the "Premium" plan costs $19.95 per month, with a 7-day free trial. For one dollar more per month, you would get the "All Access" plan, which includes 51 languages, including Latin American Spanish. All of this content is accessed on their website or through their Android or iOS mobile apps. These plans clearly have more features than the old audio-only courses, including reading lessons, a driving mode (for use in the car), use on unlimited devices, sharing with up to three household members, flashcards (for vocabulary review), a "Speed Round" game (to test your skills), a "Speak Easy" role-play tool (with conversation transcripts), "Lightbulb Moments" (to connect your studies with culture), a vocabulary saving feature (for easy reference of your content), new bonus content (to expand your vocabulary), and a "Quick Match" quiz (to visualize new words).

Preply

Preply logo

There are a number of companies that connect prospective students with language tutors, and Preply is one of the better-known ones. These types of informal distance-learning classes have several advantages over the canned content of grammar lessons, word lists, and foreign travel scenarios — including the ability of the tutor to instantly detect and correct problems in pronunciation, misunderstandings of word usage relative to context, and opportunities to shift the direction of instruction to better match what would work best for your language goals and abilities at that moment.

There are 24 languages from which to choose, including Spanish. Some have very few tutors available (e.g., only 13 for Danish, as of this writing), while popular languages have far more available (e.g., 11,425 for Spanish). The hourly rates they charge vary from one tutor to the next; the prices generally range from $15-$40. During the (free) registration process to become a new user of Preply, you can tell it which language you wish to learn, your estimated level of proficiency (gauged by a short language test), any reason for learning (e.g., upcoming travel or work in a foreign country), your times of availability, your hourly budget, and how many lessons you would like to do each week. The entire setup takes approximately ten minutes. The Preply system will then recommend several tutors, and you can read their self-descriptions and watch their introductory videos. You can use Preply's messaging system to ask potential tutors any questions about their instructional methods. Once you have chosen a tutor and signed up for a lesson, you will receive a reminder via email before the lesson. If you are not pleased with a particular lesson or tutor, you can change to a different tutor and even request a refund or credit for the lesson.

Pronunciator

Pronunciator logo

The larger and more established language training platforms typically offer products and services not only to individuals, but to corporations, nonprofit organizations, and government entities as well. Pronunciator is no exception, as I first learned about them as a service made freely available by my local library. At the time, Pronunciator provided the usual vocabulary and grammar content and testing, but also online videos and 256 live, teacher-led group discussions per week (as part of their "ProLive" system), with separate classes for adults and children, and for several levels of proficiency. The teachers were skilled at encouraging even the most timid of students to speak up and join in the discussions. The teachers could optionally display chat messages, which was quite helpful for allowing them to show the spelling of a Spanish word or phrase. 163 other languages are covered.

If you do sign up to use the Pronunciator system — either on your own or through an organization that is paying for the resource — there are a few technical pitfalls to watch out for: When creating your account, definitely do not commit the common security mistake of choosing a password that you are already using for any other account online, because their website stores your password in their database in plaintext (at least, that was their terrible practice several years ago). This blunder was made clear when I tried to do a password reset and the system emailed my password to me! Also, do not include any spaces in your password, because they are automatically removed, without informing you — thereby preventing you from logging in and thus compelling you to request a password reset (leading back to the former problem). The system interface works in any web browser, including the ones on smartphones. The company used to offer an Android app, but that has since disappeared.

Rocket Languages

Rocket Languages logo

If you listen to travel-related podcasts or YouTube videos, then you probably have already heard of Rocket Languages, because the company appears to do much of its marketing through online affiliates. Rocket Languages offers training in more than a dozen languages, including Spanish. In addition to teaching the language's words, phrases, and grammar, their system uses voice recognition to help you fine-tune your pronunciation. Also, they include in-depth cultural lessons, which "detail aspects of everyday life, important people, and significant moments in history". However, the website also claims that "you may even learn to understand the locals better than they know themselves", which is quite a claim, bordering on arrogance (yes, it is an American company).

The Spanish material is divided into three levels, and if you purchase all three of them at once (and during the first two hours that you visit their website), then the cost is $259.90. This entitles you to lifetime access to their 370 hours of lesson time, a bit more than 10,000 voice recognition phrases, 98 interactive audio sessions, 87 language and cultural lessons, and 30 bonus survival kits (whatever that means). There is a 60-day money back guarantee. Prior to such a purchase, it would be wise to take advantage of their free trial, to see if their content and method of instruction appeal to you.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone logo

Having launched in 1992, prior to the Web and its enabling of online services, the well-known language-instruction company Rosetta Stone naturally marketed and developed its software as installable products that customers purchased and used on their personal computers. The software itself could experience technical problems that prevented it from starting properly much of the time, but the actual language-teaching content was of decent quality. Nowadays, access to that content is provided and controlled over the Internet. Of the 25 languages available, interestingly, two of them are Latin American Spanish and European Spanish, and two others are American English and British English. Rosetta Stone appears to be one of the few language training companies that recognizes the notable differences of that first pair, and even more so of the second pair.

Despite the transition from desktop software to online service, Rosetta Stone continues to teach languages using what it calls "Dynamic Immersion", which involves gradually introducing sights, sounds, words, sentences, conversations, and concepts in a way that’s supposed to accelerate the learning process. More specifically, it does not show direct translation between the two languages (unlike most other teaching methods). Instead, it shows two related pictures, each labeled with a foreign word; below them are two similar but unlabeled pictures, and the student is asked to associate a new foreign word with the correct unlabeled picture. That is to say, Rosetta Stone is employing the technique of spaced repetition used by at least a few other competing companies, but in this case they don't provide translation on the screen, but instead compel the student to use only the foreign words. From my own experience, I can attest that instead of accelerating the learning process, it actually slowed down for me, as the whole process seemed more like a visual form of working through a word list, rather than seeing words used in the context of full sentences.

However, the latest version of the software offers more features, including use on multiple devices with syncing, a phrase book of common greetings and expressions, audio lessons that allow listening to material off-line, stories in the foreign language, speech recognition to provide instant feedback on your pronunciation, customization of a learning plan based upon your goals, and native-speaking coaches with whom you can practice. These improvements seem to be paying off for the company, because their customer list includes millions of individuals worldwide, more than 12,000 corporations, more than 9000 nonprofit and public organizations, and more than 22,000 educational institutions. As an individual interested in learning Spanish, you can get three months of access for $35.97, 12 months for $95.88, and lifetime access to all of their languages for $179. Furthermore, the company offers a 3-day free trial and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Spanish Obsessed

Spanish Obsessed logo

If you would prefer to learn Spanish by listening to a friendly man and woman engaging in lively conversation, then definitely take a look at Spanish Obsessed. In this case, the man is Rob, from England, and the woman is Lis, from Colombia. On their website they state their primary goal: "Through our shared love of Spanish, we create lessons, videos, and podcasts to help you get to the next stage in your Spanish, whatever your level." Some of their audio content is free, while the "Pro" content, transcriptions, interactive exercises, and downloadable PDF notes must be purchased. You can begin accessing that content by registering a new account on their website.

Their Spanish courses are grouped into three proficiency levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced), although there does not appear to be any proficiency test to determine which one you should choose. For beginners, the "Spanish from Scratch" gets you started with 28 lessons, consisting of six hours of audio material. This is free to everyone, while the Pro subscribers receive some interactive exercises and downloadable notes. The next course, "Beginners Spanish 1", follows the same pattern, but in this case consisting of 30 lessons spanning more than six hours. In order to access the third and final course at the beginner level, "Vocabulary Power", you will need to become a Pro member, for $12.90 per month. This course consists of more than 90 lessons, spanning seven hours. At the intermediate level, only the first course has any free material, while the other three ("Intermediate 2", "Perfect Pronunciation", and "Conversation Confidence") are all Pro material. At the advanced level, one of the three courses, "Advanced 2" is Pro-only, while the other two ("Advanced 1" and "Puntos de Vista") have some free material. Fans of the podcast praise the ease of understanding Rob and Lis when they are speaking with one another, the variety of topics, the authenticity of the real-life conversations, and the tremendous value of the transcriptions and other written notes that accompany the audio content.

SpanishPrograms

SpanishPrograms logo

Some of the Spanish-training systems available will teach the student endless lists of vocabulary words and verb conjugations, and then leave it to the student to try to piece together all of these atomic units into meaningful sentences. In contrast, the "Visual Link" teaching method — developed by David . Clark, director of the US Institute of Languages, in 1996 — organizes the words and verb conjugations into themed groups, such as "basic needs", "locations", "communication", and "survival expressions". Consequently, instead of simply learning isolated vocabulary words, the student is taught right from the start how to form complete sentences and thus begin speaking Spanish as quickly as possible.

This method was used in creating the SpanishPrograms system, which consists of six major courses: "Learn Spanish — Basic Sentence Building and Comprehension" (489 lessons; free), "Learn Spanish I — Sentence Building and Conversation" (489 lessons, 14 hours of MP3 audio, for $99.99), "Learn Spanish II — Introductory Verbs" (187 lessons, 5 hours of MP3 audio, for $79.99), "Learn Spanish III — Advanced Verbs" (214 lessons, 5 hours of MP3 audio, for $79.99), "Spanish Digital Learning Center" (650 lessons, lifetime membership, for $79.99), "Spanish Comprehension Trainer" (360 lessons, 120 hours of MP3 audio, for $79.99). All of the paid courses (i.e., all but the first one listed) include community support, which presumably means the ability to ask questions of other users of the system. The free course's lessons cover topics as diverse as greetings, restaurants, telephones, travel, numbers, colors, dates, and times.

StudySpanish.com

StudySpanish.com logo

Far too many of the foreign language instruction apps and websites make grandiose and unsubstantiated claims about how quickly the student will become conversant in their language of choice. In contrast, StudySpanish.com presents a more honest and frank view of the learning process and what will be required of the student to succeed. For instance, here is their realistic perspective on vocabulary drills that are not the best use of one's time: "Too many beginning courses bombard you with long lists of Spanish vocabulary words to memorize. For most people, this is counter-productive because you won’t even be using many of these words — and so you will eventually just forget them anyway."

StudySpanish.com — which oddly sometimes uses the brand name Camino — has organized their instructional content into logical categories: pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, and verb drills. Within each category, there are multiple units, each one containing many lesson topics. More specifically, within the category of pronunciation, the student learns the details about Spanish vowels, consonants, stress, intonation, and diphthongs. The grammar category, which is quite substantial, covers noun gender, numbers, plurals, articles, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, days of the week, and numbers — and that's in just the first of nine units! The vocabulary category, divided into six units, presents a group of words related to a particular type of location or activity, such as "bathroom" and "crime" (but not "bathroom crime"!). For each group, the words are taught in the form of oral exercises (with online videos showing native speakers using those words), flashcards, matching drills, a quiz, and a test. The lessons are quite formal in structure, and there is a lot of supporting educational material. If you are seeking a language system that doesn't require much work, this isn't it!

The company offers various membership options. If you start off with a free membership, you will receive access to many of the lessons, limited access to the tests and quizzes, and access to some portions of the Camino app. A monthly membership, at the cost of $9.99 per month, gives you full access to all the features mentioned. There is a 7-day free trial, and you can cancel your membership at any time. If you really like their no-nonsense approach to Spanish training, and you want to be able to refresh your skills at any time during the rest of your life, consider getting a lifetime membership, for $119 — which is the better choice financially if you will likely be a customer for at least 12 months. Spanish teachers can look into the special options for their profession.

Verbling

Verbling logo

There are generally two categories of foreign language video chat sites on the Internet: Those in the first category pair up students who would like to practice using a new language with a native speaker (who takes on the role of the instructor), and are willing to devote an equal amount of time to then serve as an instructor to the other person who wishes to practice a different language in which the first student is fluent. The chat websites in the second category involve fixed roles, in which subscribers to the (invariably commercial) service will pay the owners of the website to gain access to dedicated instructors, who typically charge an hourly fee. The chat services in these two categories offer advantages and disadvantages. Students using a site in the second category will benefit from the knowledge and experience of language instructors who are not distracted by trying to divide the time to learn a new language themselves. However, students using a site in the first category will benefit from the (often unexpected) extra learning that takes place when teaching someone else a skill.

Most language chat sites start and remain in one of the two categories. Yet Verbling, one of the best known, transitioned from the first category to the second. In its initial incarnation, similar to any of the other creditable exchanges, it paired foreign language enthusiasts, but also offered some additional features not found on most other language exchanges. Verbling Friends, as it was then known, apparently used to incorporate flashcards into the lessons, as well as topic ideas for discussions (e.g., "What is the nightlife like in your country?") to help stimulate the conversation. Also, the two individuals would be allowed to talk for 10 minutes, during which time the two people would speak one of the two languages for five minutes. Also, you could opt to be inserted into a random conversation, chat-roulette style.

In its current form, Verbling pairs you the student with instructors so you can learn a new language or improve upon one you've already started — with more than 70 languages from which to choose. Hourly prices start at five dollars. Verbling boasts more than 10,000 expert tutors (also referred to on the website as "teachers"), all of whom have prior teaching experience and have been vetted by the Verbling staff. After you choose a language to learn, such as Spanish, you are shown a long list of available tutors. For each one, you can see their profile photo and country, read their introduction, check their proficiency level in any languages they speak, see the number of lessons they have taught on the platform so far, and even book a free trial lesson. The company also teaches foreign languages to corporate groups.

VerbMaestro

VerbMaestro logo

People who are trying to learn Spanish (myself included) often note that the biggest hurdle is memorizing the numerous verb conjugations, particularly the irregular ones. Yet this is a hurdle that must be overcome, before one can hope to achieve mastery of any language, because verbs are needed to glue together the nouns and other linguistic components into sentences, for communicating thoughts to others. Fortunately, there are several online services that specialize in teaching Spanish verbs, and one of the best is VerbMaestro. As of this writing, the website content is grouped into 15 units, most of which contain multiple lessons. The major units cover the present tense (regular forms), the preterite tense (regular forms), the imperfect past tense (regular forms), mastering those three critical tenses (regular forms), the two verbs for "to be", the present and past progressive tenses, the present tense (irregular forms), all present tense verbs, the past tenses (irregular forms), those three critical tenses (all forms), the future tense, the conditional tense, the present perfect tense, and the past perfect tense.

The home page of the website has links to the "VerbMaestro Challenge", which can be helpful for assessing your current skill level in conjugating Spanish verbs, as you test yourself with one of three challenge quizzes. Also available is a sample lesson, which can quickly provide you with a sense of how the service works, including its user interface, which I found to be attractive and easy to read. It is not necessary — but it is certainly wise — to take at least one challenge quiz and to read the sample lesson, prior to registering an account for yourself, which is free of charge. This gives you access to many more lessons, exercises, and quizzes. Also, some of the lessons conclude with one or more recommended books or other resources for learning the particular topic in greater detail.

While working my way through the entire course, I initially found it to be more challenging than expected, because the material incorporated verbs I had never seen before (i.e., missing from Duolingo), but clearly needed to learn. As expected for me, trying to memorize and recall all of the irregular verb conjugations was the most difficult part of it. By the end, however, I was thankful for having made the effort, because my proficiency and confidence with Spanish verbs had increased appreciably. The current subscription costs are $5.99 per month, or $49.99 per year, or $109.99 for a lifetime subscription. The first three major units remain free without any subscription needed.

Visual Spanish

Visual Spanish logo

Previously known as "Bueno, Entonces", Visual Spanish is a five-week course that claims to teach the language not with boring vocabulary drills, but instead through listening to fun and funny conversations between a man and a woman. More specifically, the course includes 20 hours of audio (divided into 30 classes), a color-coded vocabulary (of 180,000 words), verb conjugations (more than 2000), pronunciation lessons (by five native speakers with different regional accents), grammar lessons, 30 classes on Latin American culture, two dozen quizzes, five unit tests, and a final assessment exam. Several other bonuses are included in the total cost of $197.

To try out the material and see if it could work for you, you could listen to the 63 free classes available on their YouTube page. I did that once, and discovered numerous flaws: The instructor talks too fast and thus her subtitles are shown only briefly. She uses phrases that are apparently specific to Argentina. There are some errors in the subtitles. Some of the dialogue is baffling. Lastly, the constant background music is annoying. I can't imagine why this series was recommended by several bloggers. Perhaps the edgy dialogue?

Does the full system achieve its promise of "conversational Spanish in 5 weeks… Guaranteed"https://www.ross.ws/? I don't see how it possibly could, given that five weeks isn't sufficient to become fluent in any language, even if taking daily immersion lessons in a foreign country, much less listening to someone else's conversation, without feedback from a dedicated instructor. Fortunately, they offer a 90-day money back guarantee. Incidentally, for a product that focuses so much on audio instruction, it seems rather odd to rebrand it as "visual".

YouSwear

YouSwear logo

So you have slogged your way through endless vocabulary lists, conjugated verbs until you have honed your hatred of irregulars, and even spent time struggling to speak and understand Spanish on video chat exchange sites. Now you are ready for a bit of fun, even if it would be severely frowned upon by the language police. Yes, it's time to learn how to curse in your new language! One website to help you get started down this dark road, is YouSwear, which at first glance seems to be a bottomless pit of foul language — much of which will make you grin if not laugh out loud.

All of its nasty content is divided into 858 categories (labeled as "Languages"), ranging from "(kwalian dialect)", "(pashto)", and "70s black" to "Zou", "Zulu", and "Zusvout". Some of the category names are quite unfamiliar to me, and others rather bizarre. There are 17 categories devoted to Spanish, most of which are for the dialect of a given Latin American country. It was fun reading through many of the entries, and I even spotted a couple words taught to me years ago by a friendly cheese merchant in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Who said learning a foreign language had to be boring?

I hope the Spanish instruction courses and other products reviewed in this article can be valuable to you. If you know of other resources, please share them in the comments. ¡Nos vemos!

Copyright © 2021 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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