“No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise, he voluntarily makes himself a great baby – so helpless and so ridiculous.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
*NOTE: Originally posted on July 15th, 2015 – Since moving to Ecuador, we’ve added updates and advice reflecting our day-to-day experiences of living here and struggling with Spanish.
Why Learn A New Language?
¿Es necesario? ¡Por supuesto! Is it necessary? Of course! I can’t imagine moving to a country without learning at least a few basic words and phrases. I love talking! I talk too much according to one person in my life…
What if you’re involved in an accident and need medical attention? Could you describe your condition to the Spanish-speaking medical staff?
It’s an emergency! You need a bathroom—fast—no time for pantomime. What do you do? If you know at least basic Spanish, you could ask, “¿Dónde está el baño, por favor?” Or you could try to find it yourself—hopefully in time.
I’m learning the language of my new neighbours. I don’t expect them to learn mine, and they will appreciate the effort.
It’s foolish to think you can live in a Spanish-speaking country without learning the lingo. You’ll feel alienated and many interesting opportunities to discover the local culture will pass you by. Once our decision to move was final, we started to learn Latin American Spanish. We’re still learning, getting better daily, and having fun doing it. It’s good for old brains like ours too!
*Update: If you can’t speak Spanish, you’ll end up hanging out only with other English-speaking people – I know this from our experience here in Ecuador. I’m not putting down our friends, it’s just that making Ecuadorians friends is not easy with limited Spanish. Even though Ecuadorians are warm and friendly, it’s impossible to form a friendship if you can’t have a conversation.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” (Nelson Mandela)
Our goal was to know at least some Spanish when we arrived in Ecuador—we wanted to understand and speak the basics. Me gustaría dos cervezas por favor—I’d like two beers please. ¿Cuánto cuesta?—How much does it cost? Hola, ¿cómo está?—Hello, how are you?
We started with a free online program called “Duolingo”. Check it out, it’s great! My vocabulary increased to 1500 words in a short time—but I do have a hard time remembering all of them. I practice mostly on my smartphone and try to do at least one lesson a day.
One thing to consider before starting your studies – you probably should learn Latin American Spanish as opposed to Castilian, unless you’re traveling to Spain. You’ll still be understood in Ecuador using Castilian – you could compare it to a Canadian speaking with an Australian – you’ll still be able to have a conversation.
Paid programs and subscriptions – after using free methods for a time, we decided to get serious about learning Spanish.
*Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliates. This simply means that when you click on a link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission – but don’t fret – it will not cost you any extra! Thanks for your support.
We purchased the first four levels of Simon and Schuster’s The Pimsleur Method in CD form. It’s a great way to learn, with 30-minute lessons that you can listen to anywhere – I practiced in my car, driving to and from work – I just wish I would have finished all 5 levels… You learn proper pronunciation and you practice by talking out loud – you may look silly at times while at a stop light, but – hey – you’re actually speaking Spanish! You can try it out for free. Another popular online learning method is Babbel. We didn’t subscribe to this one, but I tried the free lessons and thought they were great. They offer mobile apps, several payment plans, and a money-back guarantee.
Rocket Spanish offers both CDs and online courses, smart phone apps, a one-time payment plan with 3 options to choose from, and a money-back guarantee. As with most other courses, you can try it for free. You set daily goals, take tests at the end of each module with a final test at the end of each level – and the flash cards are fun to use too. The interactive lessons encourage you to practice speaking and pronunciation. It’s definitely worth looking into this one.
Books and e-books
You’ll need reference books too. Google Translate is great, and you can find a ton of info online, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing beats browsing hard copy books.
Lonely Planet sells excellent products, including two that we use regularly. The “Latin American Spanish Pocket Guide and Dictionary” comes in handy when your mind goes blank and all the words you’ve studied are temporarily inaccessible – this happens to me all the time. 🙂 We also purchased their “Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands” guide. It’s packed with info, including places to visit, eat and sleep, things to do, and maps of each region. We are super happy with both of these books and have used them many, many times.
The above-mentioned Spanish pocket guide is a small book and therefore doesn’t include all the words we eventually wanted to look up – so we bought a full-sized dictionary too. A good Spanish/English dictionary is indispensable. After researching the available dictionaries, we bought “The New World Spanish/English English/Spanish Dictionary”. It was an excellent choice and we’ve used it a lot. It’s inexpensive and has practically every word you can think of listed – in both Spanish and English. It contains over 1300 pages, including sections on pronunciation, nouns, adjectives, adverbs and an excellent section on — the dreaded and impossible-for-me-to-remember — verb conjugations, along with 14 pages of model Spanish verbs. Did you know that there are 58 verb variations for “vivir” (to live)? And there are a lot of verbs!!!
A highly recommended, top-selling book for learning Spanish is “Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish”. The 45 lessons will teach you to speak, read, write and think in Spanish. You’ll study pronunciation, common verb tenses, sentence structure and translation exercises – and you’ll practice by writing sentences down on paper.
Another very popular study guide, “Practice Makes Perfect“, is a series of books, including basic Spanish, verb tenses, grammar, vocabulary, and conversation. An online app is available with some editions, including flashcards, audio recordings, record-and-replay, and a progress tracker.
A book I really enjoyed is “Learn Spanish The Novel Way—Joey Goes To Mexico”. It’s a captivating story about a family from the U.S. who visit Mexico, begin to learn Spanish, enjoy the culture, and decide to stay. As you progress through the book, more and more Spanish is introduced. It’s an enjoyable way to learn – I read it twice.
Reading familiar books in Spanish – good dictionary at hand – works well too. I bought “The Old Man and the Sea” or “El Viejo y el Mar” by Ernest Hemingway – it’s one of my favourites, and I learned a lot, especially past and future verb conjugations.
*Tip: At the time of writing, we could not order things online and have them shipped to our address in Ecuador – for example, Amazon did not ship to Ecuador. It’s also expensive to have items shipped here. (Actually, we’ve lived on several unnamed streets and had no address to ship to). For example: Robin needed new documents for her visa application and had an envelope shipped by DHL from Nova Scotia to Loja at a cost of over $100! Buy physical items, such as books, CDs, etc., before you come to Ecuador. The internet is great here, so online digital purchases are not a problem.
P.S. One of the best ways to learn and remember new words is by making mistakes. There is a fruit in Ecuador called “guaba”, or “the ice cream bean”. I tried it, liked it, and decided to try to find some more. I mispronounced the word and asked a local where I could find some “guapa”. He looked at me kind of strange – “guapa” means good-looking girl. I will always remember those two words!
P.S.S. We’ve discovered a few other free methods of tuning up our Spanish:
- If you use Facebook, change your language setting to Spanish. It’ll be difficult at first, but you will learn many new words – and after a short time, you won’t need Google Translate.
- Facebook again: “like” Spanish learning pages – such as “Espanol Real” or “1001 Reasons To Learn Spanish” and get their updates. You’ll learn new words and phrases every day.
- Watching videos in Spanish will help with understanding – my biggest problem – if I had a dollar for every time I’ve said, “No entiendo”…
- Watch Spanish movies with (or without) subtitles – you’ll get used to hearing the language and start to understand words – eventually whole phrases!
- YouTube – there are lots of free learning channels to choose from. One of our favourites for the basics was “Butterfly Spanish”.
- Check out a Spanish soap opera called “Destinos”. “Travel the world with lawyer Raquel Rodríguez as she solves a mystery for a dying man.” It’s free!
Good luck with learning Spanish. Have fun, study hard, and don’t give up!
¡Hasta luego! See you later!
*Update: February 2017. We’ve been in Ecuador for over a year and I’m disappointed in myself. My Spanish is better, but far from good. I still have a hard time understanding – most people speak very fast. I wish I had put more effort into learning before we moved here – I assumed I’d pick it up quickly…
My advice to you: STUDY! Put a lot of effort into learning your new language. Believe me, it will be worth it. Without good Spanish, you’ll find it impossible to have normal conversations, and very difficult to make new Spanish-speaking amigos.
You don’t have to spend a fortune. For beginner Spanish, the free programs and apps will get you started. Pick one or two more advanced paid programs or subscriptions and work your way through them – all the way to the end! Don’t give up. Study hard before you move to Ecuador – I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.