How We Learnt Spanish – A Work in Progress

Posted in: Language Learning

View of QuitoIt has often been said that total immersion in a foreign language is the best way to learn, and while this is definitely true, lessons certainly help.  But with such a huge learning curve, the biggest question is, where to start?

We have tried all kinds of different lessons, Rosetta Stone, audio lessons, podcasts, books, and real live teacher student face to face lessons, but by far the best thing we’ve found is an audio course by Pimsleur. (Get a free Pimsleur lesson from Audible. Audible is the cheapest place.)

When we moved here friends told us to wait at least a year before taking lessons from a teacher, but we were anxious so we signed up about five months after we arrived.  Well turns out our friends were right.  The teacher was excellent, she even spoke English really well, but it was too much too fast.  Our heads were spinning, and we really didn’t retain much.

The problem with Rosetta Stone, and the other courses was that they only teach words, or phrases consisting of a few words each.  We were trying to learn but were unable to speak in intelligent polite sentences, we have found that this ability is essential to communication (sarcastic smile inserted here).  With Rosetta Stone in particular, one of their selling points is about total immersion, which works well in real life. But Rosetta Stone uses pictures, and does not use any English to explain them.  The absence of English is not help, it’s a hindrances, for example when the program was trying to teach me the word for “I have” I thought they were teaching “I touch,” the absence of English makes the course confusing, and they only teach present tense.

It was only after we started the Pimsleur course that we began to get a handle on the normal flow of polite conversation.  I found it very frustrating that the other courses were teaching me to say things that I would never use at this stage in the learning process.   Things like: “Do you drive to the library everyday?” Am I really going to walk up to a stranger and say that?  With Pimsleur I started off learning how to say “Pardon me Sir, good afternoon, I speak English, do you speak English?  I speak a little Spanish, and I only understand a little, thank you, good bye.” This I could begin to work with.  Each lesson builds on the one before and they are only 30 minutes each, you are recommended to only do one a day.  We have found that this really is the best way to learn because it sinks in, and it’s not overwhelming.

The school we took our classes at is called Simon Bolivar, it’s right here in Cuenca and I would recommend them, after about a year of immersion, and Pimsleur. Get a free Pimsleur lesson from Audible.

 

1 Free Audio Book - Audible.com

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Meet the Author

Since moving to Ecuador in 2009, Dena and Bryan have made their living as bloggers. Dena is a partner at Storyteller Media, a content marketing company for Canadian travel brands. She is a contributor to Bryan Haines and is co-founder of Click Like This - a photo tutorial blog.

24 comments… add one
  • Emily Smith Dec 20, 2015, 9:13 am

    We also use and recommend Pimsleur. They really do a good job of teaching real Spanish conversation. Of course that doesn’t always translate to real-life situations, where we can become anxious and tongue-tied trying to speak and understand a language that’s not our own. I wish we’d begun this much younger than in our 50s!

  • Rick Oct 28, 2012, 6:35 pm

    We have just arrived in Cuenca for a two-month stay. After much hinting, me esposa gave me the complete RosettaStone course for Christmas about 4 years ago but I couldn’t seem to find the time. Now, in my first year of “unemployment”, I have been working my way through it and have almost completed Level II. I can identify with all the criticisms of RS and have supplemented it by continuously using a dictionary to look up all the words and verbs that RS inserts into the course with no explanation and building a vocabulary library in Excel. I really liked the comment by Tad in October of 2011 and will probably move on to Pimsleur or Fluenz after I complete RosettaStone.

    In the meantime, I was intending to take some private lessons at Simon Bolivar during our stay but from reading Dena’s comments, I’m wondering if I’d get any value from this.

    I find I can interpret a fair amount of the written word and stumble my way through some very basic speech but understanding the
    AK-47 rapid-fire spanish-speaking person is just impossible.

    We’ve travelled a fair amount of the world and can say after only two days in Cuenca………….there’s something really special here.

    The comments have been helpful. Thanks to all.

  • Michael Olson Oct 14, 2012, 11:16 am

    Before traveling to Mexico I checked out Pimsleur disks from the library, and they were very helpful. I also found another system which I think works as well especially when it comes to conjugating verbs. It is called, learning like crazy, spoken spanish. Between Pimsleur and learning like crazy I am making progress, I find my biggest problem is finding someone who I can converse with. Enjoy the blog. thanks.
    Mike

  • Cindy Dec 10, 2011, 7:42 pm

    I am planning to move to Panama and also need to learn Spanish. I found Pimsleur at the local library and put all 3 units on my Ipod. They are very good and I like that they begin with basics, entiendo espanol muy buen almost from the beginning. I’m only on Unit 2 now but have progressed really well for someone who is “mature”. I also have a Spanish dictionary for words that I just can’t get the proper pronunciation without seeing the letters.

  • Candace Agnew Nov 13, 2011, 11:47 am

    Wow, thanks so much for responding back to me about this. I was really torn between Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur; but had been leaning in the direction of the Pimsleur. I am definitely going to get the free lesson on Audible.com and then go from there. I, also, referred a friend to your site. Hopefully she will check you out and join. Her name is Jean and she is considering a trip in the future and possible retirement there also.

  • Tad Oct 20, 2011, 7:22 pm

    I, like many, have also tried many different approaches to learn Spanish. I now am almost fluent and I can say that what works best is…all of it! You need to do it all (within means, of course). I’ve found that a combination of study books, Rosetta Stone, podcasts, Pimsleur, teachers, etc. works very well. I find Spanish to be very intuitive and natural now. Don’t slam Rosetta Stone too much, there is a reason it’s called immersion, it’s not supposed to have any English.

    For podcasts I really enjoyed “Coffee Break Spanish” and Radiolingua’s other podcasts. Barrons has a few good books, and check out http://www.lomastv.com!!!

    • Aaron Dec 13, 2011, 12:39 pm

      The problem with Rosetta isn’t “immersion” it’s poor pictures and lack of thought into the lessons. Like you’re supposed to guess the difference between happy and excited as portrayed by a stock photo.

  • Mark Oct 5, 2011, 12:57 pm

    Pimsleur! I have struggled with Rossetta Stone for a couple of years. Reading your comments and description perfectly illustrates my frustrations. The wife is already pitching Pimsleur based on your endorsement and I am now convinced. Time to try something new.

  • Helena Sep 3, 2011, 12:17 am

    Good article. I have to add my plug for Pimsleur as well since I was trying to learn Japanese and that’s a language you have to start out learning in an auditory way because their alphabet(s) are different. I also loved being able to put lessons on my iPod and listen to them multiple times while walking. When all those lessons had sunk in enough I went to a grammer book and started to expand my vocabulary and understanding of structure. But Pimsleur is great for giving you some real tools super fast. Early encouragement helps a lot when you’re just starting out and feel the long road stretching in front of you…

    • Bryan Haines Sep 6, 2011, 6:13 pm

      Agreed Helena – Pimsleur is a great program. Its especially good for getting the “feel” of the language.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Kevin Jul 24, 2011, 7:50 pm

    Everybody has their own way of learning and being a visual learner which they say 70% of us are I chose VISUAL LINK SPANISH since they give you a visual of the sentences coming together with pictures are really simplify it. There are many free lessons and examples of their product from their website.
    http://www.learnspanishtoday.com/

    I bought 3 of their products: level 1 personal edition, level 2 verb module, and level 3 verb module.

    All 3 were $250 total and think it is a great resource but living in a spanish country with full immersion is the best way to learn. I am going through them all an hour a day before I arrive in Ecuador in September and then decide on getting additional lessons.

    There is a lot of free online spanish sites as well for anyone interested.

  • Vickie Jul 19, 2011, 6:16 pm

    Hola!
    I just love your blog. Our plan is to move to Cuenca in 4 years after our son graduates from college. We’re planning a trip to Cuenca in December over his winter break and I cannot wait to see it in person.

    I just wanted to give you a heads up on a software program I have been using the last month to learn Spanish along with the Pimsleur system.

    FLUENZ, They teach using English. You have Sonja, a Spanish speaking young lady teaching you Spanish with speaking English. I tried the free Rosetta Stone and the free Fluenz at their online sites, and Fluenz blew Rosetta Stone away. Hands down. It’s a beautiful software program and put together muy bien.

    They start with a dialogue between two Spanish speakers. You listen to the dialogue 3 times with an English translation (typed on screen), an English and Spanish translation (typed on screen together so you can see word for word what they are saying) or no translation. Then Sonja, in English, breaks down the Spanish dialogue for you…word by word. She explains the verb, noun, adj. nuances. Then you do workouts. Type words that you hear. Type sentences you hear. Read the Spanish words and repeat them…after listening to the Spanish speaker (if you wish). Read sentences and repeat them. Read words and match them to a picture. Read Spanish sentences and match them to the English translation. Read the dialogue and have a conversation while speaking into your microphone which you play back so you can hear how well you did. You learn to speak Spanish, write Spanish, spell it correctly and hopefully understand it when it’s spoken to you (that’s the most difficult thing for me!)

    The first few lessons were dialogues in a restaurant. How to order… yo quiero jugo de naranja, cafe con leche y agua sin/con hielo (I still have to learn my International keyboard and accents, apologies). 🙂 Then they moved on to a hotel, how to speak to a taxi driver and now I am working on a phone conversation.

    The Fluenz program is fantastic! You get 30 lessons per Program and there’s 5 Spanish programs 1-5. I bought Program 1 and hope to work my way through the other 4 prior to moving to Cuenca in 4 years. I am working my way through that along with the Pimsleur digital program. I like Pimsleur a lot too. These two programs go together muy bien.

    I just thought you may like to take a look at Fluenz since they use ENGLISH to teach. That’s really the best way for adults to learn a second language. You can do lesson 1 from Program 1 at Fluenz.com for free if you would like to check it out. It takes about an hour, maybe two and it’s really, really fun. 🙂 Though you may already be fluent Spanish speakers since this was posted in October 2010.

    Adios!

  • elmonica Apr 5, 2011, 7:08 pm

    I studied for 6 consecutive months in Antigua, Guatemala at least 20 hours a week in school with my own teacher. Now back in the states I try and read articles in Spanish from the Wall Street Journal online which are free. I also watch the History Channel in Spanish, preferably with Spanish subtitles.

    I still have a long way to go. I didn't realize it would be so hard.

  • Amy Ribbons Feb 1, 2011, 8:13 am

    Great post. thanks!

  • Charles Simonson Jan 30, 2011, 4:42 pm

    We want to come to Ecuador to "check it out". We have lived in Costa Rica, so know our way around a little. Thinking of renting a car and traveling around to areas we want to see. Any suggestions on knowing what to do and what not to do? Thank you

  • Christine Dec 15, 2010, 12:29 pm

    I feel like I have tried so many methods as well, and of course everyone has one that works best for them, but I figured I would suggest it anyway: an "intercambio". I struggled with these at first, but they forced me to learn quickly. I'm sure you will meet lots of Ecuadorians that want to learn English, so do half of the time in English, the rest in Spanish. It makes for a great way to meet people as well. Also, Coffee Break Spanish podcasts are free to download on iTunes and are great for practicing alone. Love you site and looking forward to your updates.

    • Bryan Haines Dec 15, 2010, 12:35 pm

      Thanks for your comment. Absolutely – this has worked best for us as well. We have more Ecuadorian than Gringo friends – and so things are progressing well. And you're right – many Spanish speakers want to speak some (or better) English. The interchange works well.

  • manolo Oct 16, 2010, 9:01 am

    What I have discovered, the best way to learn foreign language is to live in that enviroment. Its easier and the natural way to absorb local phrases and pronunciation. Anyway.. nice blog.. good luck 🙂

    • Bryan Haines Oct 17, 2010, 6:59 pm

      Absolutely. This has helped us the most as well. In terms of courses/books – we've tried them all. For us, Pimsleurs was the best; we use it to complement daily life here and it is working well.

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Rick Jacobs Oct 8, 2010, 12:27 pm

    Thank you very much! This has long been a question of mine. I will definitely check out Pimsleur.

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