GringosAbroad Ecuador

Fast and Easy Spanish For Busy Expats

Posted in: Expat Hacks, Language Learning

easy-spanishMany people that move abroad are retired and don’t need to work.

This works out well when it comes to language learning because they have more time on their hands than people that need to work and take care of their children.

We are hearing from more and more families planning to move abroad. It can be a little more difficult to learn the language when you have lots of responsibilities.

Don’t fool yourself (like we did) thinking that you will have sooo much more time to learn the language once you relocate.

It’s true that you will need to work less because the cost of living is lower, but you will probably want to fill that extra time by doing things with your family. After all that’s probably part of the reason you are moving.

So start now, whether you’ve moved or not.

Language learning is a family activity, but the path of least resistance is pretty attractive, especially when you are adjusting to life in a new country. Your family will want time to give their brains a rest, so look for ways to learn that don’t seem so much like work.

We have had a bit of a struggle finding sufficient time to learn Spanish. It seems something always comes up which throws off our schedule. There is always something to do: clean the house, help Drew with her schooling, shop, cook, work, volunteer,  family time…

How We Learn Despite Being Busy

We pick up a lot on the fly because most of our friends are Ecuadorian and only speak Spanish, so we are always learning through conversation. Our friends correct our mistakes and help us to understand what new words mean.

(Do you feel too shy to talk in Spanish because you don’t feel you can speak the language very well? Speak From Day 1 may help you get over that feeling (check out this review).

I also try to set aside a little time every day to study verb conjugation. This part of the language has seemed overwhelming to me and I’m constantly making mistakes, but I’m beginning to see improvement. I have recently started studying one type of verb at a time, for example regular “er” verbs. I write the verb out in the past – Preteritopresent – Presente de indicativo and the future – futuro tenses. I also add the Perfecto de indicativo which is another past tense, because it’s easy and used a lot.

There are so many different verb tenses that trying to study and remember them all at once is too much for me. Choosing 4 tenses to work on has made it a little easier and once I master (here’s hoping) them I’ll work on some more.

This seems to be helping me grasp the conjugation better because I can see the pattern in what I’m learning. I pay special attention to the Yo (me/I) and Nosotros (us/our) conjugation because that makes up a large part of what I need to say when making conversation. The book 501 Spanish Verbs is what I’m using, it’s a really good book. I do wish there were more examples showing how to use the conjugated verbs in sentences, but I guess I would not be able to lug the book around if that was the case.

Here are some of the other books and courses we used to learn Spanish.


Mobile Tools For Easy Spanish

  1. Pimsleurs (via Audible) has really helped because I can listen to it on my iPod while I’m doing house work. I really like the way Pimsleurs teaches Spanish. It is presented in conversation style and the repetition is good. As the program goes along they bring up past words and phrases making them easier to retain.
  2. is an excellent free resource. They send out a free newsletter, so every day I learn a new Spanish word. They give the word, the definition and some examples of how it would be used in conversation. I usually write the word and examples down in a note book. This helps me remember them better and work on writing the language at the same time. The videos are exceptional – and free as well.

Learning Through Osmosis… Kind Of

It also helps to watch movies, listen to the radio and read in Spanish. It will help a lot if you can incorporate Spanish into the things you regularly do. Even if you just pick up a word here and there each time, you will be capturing the sounds of the words and the flow of the language. Kind of like absorbing the language through osmosis 🙂

If you can watch a sitcom or movie in English and then again in Spanish, it’s even better. The same goes for reading, if you can download books in both languages and flip back and forth (from English to Spanish) as you read through the paragraphs, you will grasp the language much faster.

Many of our readers are using Rocket Spanish to learn Spanish online.

Which Language Was That In?

Drew and I went to a movie a couple of weeks ago and when it was over we both said that during it we kind of forgot which language it was in. It was in Spanish but we didn’t notice because we understood it so well. That felt good! The same thing happens to us when we remember conversations that flowed especially well.

How about you? How do you find ways to learn the language?

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Meet the Author

Dena Haines is co-editor of GringosAbroad - Ecuador's largest blog for expats and travelers. She is a travel blogger and content marketer. She is also co-founder of ClickLikeThis (GoPro tutorial blog) and Storyteller Media (content marketing for travel brands). Work with GringosAbroad.

14 comments… add one
  • Tom & Margaret Feb 27, 2014, 9:46 pm

    I’ve enjoyed reading this section about learning the language but am a bit concerned how easy it will be for me at age 74. My wife seems to grasp it a lot quicker that I have but then she’s delved into deeper than I have . We found the site and it seems to be the best so far.

    After a short visit to Cuenca earlier this year we have decided we would like to move there for a while. Margaret has gone through the process of getting the paper work needed for our residence visa’s. I have many questions that I would like to ask but want to go through your archives first. Hope I don’t wear out presents on you web site.

  • Mike Bown Feb 5, 2014, 2:00 pm

    Thanks for this article Dena. Our family (wife, teenage daughter and myself) has been really enjoying your site. We are planning to move to Ecuador in August to try it out for 6 months. Then if we are able to make it work we will apply for residency. We started learning spanish a few months ago and struggled.. A LOT! But recently we shared with a friend who comes to visit about every 6 months about our plans and he recommended using It is a free site and has an app that we put on our phones and tablets. We are on it constantly. If we are out and waiting for someone or somewhere we take out our phones and practice. If we are at home, we use our tablets or laptops. We are making great progress now as a family and we have started using what spanish we have learned in our daily conversation. We are really picking up pace and getting excited. Our whole family cant wait to get to Cuenca. Perhaps we will even get to meet your family in person and buy you dinner to thank you for all your help.

  • Paul Hidalgo Jul 9, 2013, 7:57 pm

    Hi Dena
    I love this article, and congratulations for this page, I have realized how the expats struggle for improve the Spanish language (sorry, my English is my second language). In the other hand I love to talk and practice the English language, because this is the way to improve it, but the most Ecuadorians don’t talk it, so I would love to swap Spanish for English conversation for free. bye bye … Paul

  • mcooks Jul 9, 2013, 11:46 am

    Great article! Although I worked to learn Spanish through Pimsleur and Synergy before we came to Ecuador, I have found it to be very helpful to be surrounded by Spanish. We make a lot of mistakes, but since we’re mostly with Spanish speakers, they have patiently helped a lot. I also use “501 Spanish Verbs”, “Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish”, and I have an wonderful offline dictionary on my phone by “Sonico GmbH”. I love this dictionary because it contains all the possibles ways a word could be translated, considering context. In the morning while I’m waking up, I am usually forming phrases in my head that I may need to use for the day, and immediately look up a word I don’t know or remember. Then I can be sure to use it that day to help cement it into my brain. Some days I have to just say, “Discúlpame, pero mi español no funciona hoy dia”, but others I’m amazed at how well I can communicate. My husband has learned almost completely through immersion, and that seems to be his style. He has even given several public presentations (up to 1/2 hour) in Spanish, so I’m very proud of him. We’re excited to visit some of our Spanish speaking friends back in the States, and get to “show off” how much we’ve learned! 🙂

    • Dena Haines Jul 9, 2013, 2:18 pm

      Hi mcooks,

      Thanks for commenting. I’m going to look into that dictionary.

      Have fun on your trip to the States!

  • Jakob Jul 9, 2013, 10:22 am

    My philosophy has been that it is not efficient to actively learn a language. I believe most of us modern people struggle with the time required to do it. Passive learning through exposure (what you refer to as osmosis) has worked much better for me. Make a list of all the things that could improve your exposure. It can be as simple as to turn on subtitles on movies in Spanish. Switch that around once in a while, i.e. English movies with Spanish subtitles. It is important to keep your brain engaged with changing patterns. Repeating movie conversations or news broadcasts simultaneously as they happened on TV or radio has done wonders to my ability to speak like a native, all while cooking, cleaning, or doing some other menial but necessary task around the house. Sometimes you have to become a little bit active by remembering expressions that you hear over and over again and analyze them, not with a dictionary only, but with Google and language forums, if it is something that people like using and that you do not grasp the logic of, give it a really deep thought. But generally language IS something you can learn on the side while doing something else, presumably a thing that is more important.
    I have recently started answering client emails in Portuguese. I cannot speak it, yet, but writing is asynchronous contrary to speaking and I only have to force myself to deal with the discomfort of needing twice as long for every email. When commuting to work in my car I would listen to French language radio. When I went to Quebec to see a repeat client they thought that I had moved to Quebec since last time they had seen me. I laughed and said all I ever did was listen to the radio. Make the time you lose each day for mechanical activities be worth more. From my perspective language is best learned by squeezing it into the efficiency gaps in your day. Your extra time effort will be minimal.

    Be advised that there might be long initial stretches where you won’t be able to pick up the topic of spoken conversation on the radio for example. That’s perfectly ok, understanding spoken language will take time. When I was a kid I listened to Armed Forces Radio to learn English while doing my homework for school (I grew up non-english speaking). They had that country music program where the host had a southern accent. I did not understand a word for at least a year, but I kept the radio on for hours every day regardless. Looking back my methods have been wildly successful for me personally.

    • Dena Haines Jul 9, 2013, 2:27 pm

      Thank you for these tips Jakob!

      I’m glad you mentioned that it’s good to expect a period of time when you will not understand the topic of spoken conversation. That happened to us when we arrived in Ecuador, but after a number of months we slowly started to “get” it. This is something that we all need to remember or the shock of not understanding may have us putting our tail between our legs and running back home :)It can feel very overwhelming at first but it’s so worth it to stick around and give yourself time to adjust.

      Thanks for sharing that experience from when you were a kid. I wish I had done that with Spanish!

      • Jakob Jul 9, 2013, 4:20 pm

        Dena… Absolutely, don’t think that only because you did not understand a word you did not learn anything from it. Your brain will start connecting the dots from day one by a tiny little bit every day. The key is to accumulate a lot of exposure time and also think about what you just heard from time to time. It works best when you have an emotional motivation and let it drive you. With English I had the dream to live in Canada and be Canadian since the age of 14. It took me 22 years to get there. For Spanish it has been the love for my wife and her culture (I cannot even imagine to marry someone and NOT live their culture). After 10 years I think I am fairly close, I now give training classes in Spanish for customers in South America, have a home office in Ecuador, and I have not even resigned my job in Canada. And that’s the other thing… when you are trying really hard opportunities that support your objective will start popping up automatically. Is there anything you love about your life in Cuenca that you can picture benefiting or improving a lot from your ability to communicate?

  • Jason Jul 9, 2013, 8:13 am

    I appreciate your tip on learning those 4 tenses first. I have just been trying to figure out an effective way to approach improving my conjugation skills. I was wondering if I should focus on one verb at a time and try to learn all of the tenses or just pick one tense at a time and learn multiple verbs. I might try what you are doing and see if it helps.


    • Dena Haines Jul 9, 2013, 2:29 pm

      Hi Jason,

      Please let me know if it helps, or if something works better. I need all the conjugation help I can get!

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Jason Jul 10, 2013, 1:11 pm

        One resource we have found helpful for improving vocabulary is It is free to use and there are a few pre-built spanish conjugation courses like Common Conjugations and it is easy to create your own course or custom study list if you cannot find what you are looking for. My son created a custom study list to help us learn to translate the books of the Bible between Spanish and English Books of the bible

  • Christy Rouse Jul 9, 2013, 7:49 am

    Your comments make me feel much better! I took Spanish for 4 years and was able to do pretty well conversationally at that point, but over the years of no practice I have forgotten a lot and am having to refresh my memory a lot. I also struggle with the verb conjugation. Present tense is very easy for me, so as long as something is going on right now, I am all set! However, in life things often happen in the past and future, so I have to figure those out as well. I have purchased some of the books you recommend, including the 501 Verbs, and I am finding them very helpful. I just wish I had more time to devote to learning. Thank you for all of your suggestions. You have been a huge help to our family.

  • Debbie Polden Jul 9, 2013, 7:19 am

    Hi Dena,
    I appreciate what you have written in this article. We started to learn Spanish before we left Canada but it was hard because we were both working full-time etc. We thought it would be so much easier when we moved and were surrounded by Spanish speakers – to a certain extent that was true. Those verbs and conjugation!

    One thing I do to keep learning new words is to receive “Word of the Day” in Spanish. You can get it from They also have lessons that teach you the basics (and more). You can find it at:

    Thanks for your articles – even though we live in Nicaragua the whole Expat experience has a lot of similarities – they are beneficial no matter where you live.

    • Dena Haines Jul 9, 2013, 2:34 pm

      Thanks Debbie.

      I’m going to check out “Word of the Day,” thanks for including that tip.

      It’s so true that the expat experience has so many similarities no matter where we are living!

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