Beginner's Conversational Spanish Guide
This is the first cross-post I’ve done from the other site I run, Speak Spanish Pronto.
You can go directly to the website: Click here!
If you’ve ever wanted to learn Spanish, this article is for you. I’ve used these same strategies and principles throughout the last few years and decided to turn them into a guide, giving you what’s worked for me, so you can avoid unnecessary study and wasted time.
I hope you enjoy.
Simply put, most people who try to learn a language fail.
I know, I know–we’re off on a rather discouraging start.
However, the curriculum and method of instruction are often overlooked as the culprits of a failed course, while the students unfairly get most of the blame.
This isn’t to say that students are off the hook entirely. On the contrary, students play an enormous role in their learning. But, they do have good reason to become frustrated using a traditional approach to language learning.
Let me explain why.
Typical Spanish courses put too much focus on aspects that don’t provide nearly enough benefit for the student, eg., non-essential vocabulary and complex grammar structures.
In addition, they don’t put enough emphasis on the pieces that yield the highest returns for students in the real world, such as frequency lists, active listening and conversational practice.
It’s entirely possible to become conversational and speak Spanish in months, not years, by focusing on concepts that produce the highest returns.
In fact, Spanish has a relatively small number of inputs that are going to produce the majority of your success.
Inputs, in this guide, refer to the activities and content that you’re devoting time to.
If you dedicate most of your time to what I outline below, you’ll be able to drastically cut down the time it takes to become comfortable at a conversational level in Spanish.
Before I explain the process, let’s talk about the three starting blocks that you’ll need before taking off.
Starting Blocks 1 and 2
Take a few moments to ask yourself:
Why do I want to learn Spanish, i.e., what is my motivation?
What would success look like for me in terms of my conversational ability in Spanish?
These two questions are extremely important before beginning to learn any language.
The first one asks you to think about your motivation for learning Spanish. This may not seem important now, but if during the course something isn’t “clicking” immediately, you can use this question to remind yourself the reasons you wanted to learn Spanish in the first place.
If your motives are strong enough, you’ll be able to push through any moments of doubt and refocus your efforts.
Motivation is the reason we get up in the morning and do something with our lives instead of just lying in bed; this is a particularly important piece to your success and should not be brushed aside.
The second question asks you to think about what success might look like at the end of studying or after some predetermined period of time. The important bit here is to use some metric that you can define and also to stay away from arbitrary goals that you won’t be able to measure directly.
What does this look like?
A realistic success may be:
I can hold a conversation with a native speaker for 10 minutes with roughly equal time spent speaking and listening.
More modest goals may include:
I can ask for directions and advice on what to do in a foreign city and am able to understand 80% of the speaker’s responses in a 1-2-minute interaction.
These goals are entirely up to you.
If you have lofty goals in mind, you can establish a set number of minutes that you’d like to be able to talk with a native speaker without fumbling around too much.
A 15-20-minute conversation could be your goal and is entirely possible.
A set amount of time is measurable and gives insight into whether you’ve met your goal.
No guesswork involved.
Or you can use a combination of modest goals, like ordering food in a restaurant, asking for advice on where to eat or getting tips on the best local spots to visit.
Again, be sure to define these using some sort of metric.
- 1-2-minute interaction
- 5-10 interactions per day
- Understand 80-90% of the conversation
- “Create your own” measurable goal
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
A set of small goals can result in a series of wins for you in Spanish and get you confident in pursuing longer, more meaningful conversation, eventually reaching that 15-20-minute conversation mark.
The purpose of goal setting and defining success is two-fold:
It gives you a target and goes along with the motivation form earlier, keeping you focused on the overall objective
You have a countable reference point to see if you succeeded—can you hold that conversation for 10 minutes?
Now that we’ve addressed motivation and success, we’re moving on to the final starting block before getting to the good stuff.
Starting Block 3
You should set a time limit for yourself.
There’s a concept that says something along the lines of,
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
Basically, you’ll take the time you were given to finish a task, even if you could’ve finished it in half the time with the same quality of work.
Think back to a time where you put off a project for the two weeks you were allotted, and then as the deadline approached, you were “magically” able to complete it, cramming everything into a few days.
I’m not saying to cram. I’m saying to set up a realistic schedule.
Know that if you give yourself six months to test your 5-10-minute conversation ability, you’ll likely finish in six months.
If instead you give yourself 3-4 months, you’re likely to finish that much faster.
A shorter deadline helps you stay on point. Your energy levels stay elevated.
And most importantly…
You focus on what matters and eliminate filler work that you tend to create for yourself just to fill the time you are given.
A greater intensity of focus is what enables you to do the same quality of work in less time.
Now you’ve got your motivation.
You defined success on your terms.
And you’ve set yourself a deadline.
We can turn our attention to the application side of the guide to speak Spanish in record time.
Step #1- The Letters and sounds of Spanish
The first step in your Spanish quest is to have familiarity with the letters and sounds of the Spanish language. In my opinion this first step is essential and must come before anything else.
Without sounds you cannot have a conversation (let’s ignore sign language for the sake of argument).
That should be convincing enough—no sound = no conversation.
If it’s not convincing, here are the pitfalls of not focusing on sounds first.
If you try to read Spanish without knowing how it sounds, you’ll likely substitute the English-equivalent sounds.
This affects pronunciation and could take twice as long to undo and relearn the sounds.
It includes any attempt to first memorize vocabulary before learning the sounds—you won’t be memorizing in Spanish, which will make it even more difficult to hear a native who’s using correct pronunciation.
As an example, if you were to read the sentence below, you’d likely be influenced by English.
“La mujer pidió un Uber para llegar a la ciudad.”
- The -j in mujer sounds close to an -h in English
- The -i in pidió and ciudad are close to the -ee in “peek”
- The -ll in llegar can sound like the -dg from “judge”, or close to the -y from “yes”
Practicing these incorrectly hurts you twice—once when you waste your time pronouncing them incorrectly and again when you have to undo that pronunciation.
You won’t be able to hear the words in a conversation.
You must adjust your ear to Spanish and that takes practice. That’s why more listening and speaking and less reading and writing help accelerate your ability to reach a conversational level.
I’ve heard the term machine-gun Spanish before and I think it applies to what we’re discussing here. You know what I’m talking about.
You come across a Spanish-language TV show or other program and hear that rapid succession of unintelligible sounds and wonder how anyone could know what’s going on.
It’s because you haven’t yet learned to recognize the individual sounds and your brain is grouping everything together as one jumbly mess. It’s understandable that you can’t process these sounds yet.
If you spend time getting comfortable with the sounds, you’ll be able to untangle that mess of speech. And as a result, you’ll start to hear a more “slowed-down” and clear version of Spanish.
After you’re comfortable with the sounds of Spanish, both in listening and pronunciation, you can move on to the next step.
Step #2- Use Frequency Lists
The second step in the SSP Conversational Spanish Guide is to arm yourself with some basic vocabulary.
I can already hear your groans. I feel your pain. I know you don’t want someone telling you to simply memorize vocabulary.
I’m not going to do that.
Instead, I’m going to let you in on an often-overlooked aspect of vocabulary learning.
Learn only the most frequently used words and forget the rest (for now).
If you’re thinking, well yeah, that’s obvious. Why would I waste time learning other words I won’t be using?
The main reason is because it makes lessons easier to plan and so it’s often the preferred method for instructional books and classroom settings.
Traditional courses teach vocabulary by theme, which means learning hundreds of words about the kitchen, food, colors, professions, animals, and so on. You’re learning vocabulary from similar groups.
This method is easy to plan for.
“This week we’re focusing on the themes of the house and all the vocabulary and verbs that go along with it. Next week we’ll learn all about the weather and its related vocabulary…”
However, in terms of getting from zero to a conversational level in a language, this is one of the least efficient ways to get there. In the process you’re forced to pick up a lot of words you may never use or very rarely use.
Instead, you should be doubling down on the words that you’re going to hear and need to be able to say on a daily or at least weekly basis. Focus your efforts on the most frequently used words.
Luckily for us, technology puts these frequency lists at our fingertips—literally at our fingertips.
It’s basically like having superpowers for vocabulary building.
Below is a preview of a list I built using the first 100 of the 1,000 most frequently spoken Spanish words.
The list is made possible by analyzing movies and television subtitles and is the closest we can get to approximating the usage of words in normal conversations.
It’s incredibly powerful because it allows you to study the words that you’re statistically more likely to come across in conversation. This maximizes your study time.
You’ll want to familiarize yourself with the list, working through the pronunciations and seeing how the words are used within context.
Turn your phone sideways if you’re on mobile to view the sample charts.
To close out Step #2, here’s two important points to consider:
Learning the 1,000 most frequently used words is estimated to give you access to 88% of spoken Spanish
In contrast, the next 1,000 (2,000 total words) gives you access to ~ 93% of spoken Spanish.
Essentially, you double your efforts (2X vocabulary) but squeeze out only 5% more of the Spanish you understand.
Here’s a visual if it’s unclear.
These first 1,000 provide an enormous return on your invested study time.
This big jump from zero vocabulary to 88% of spoken Spanish vocabulary is indicated with the red arrow at 1,000 words.
The next jumps in understanding (green, orange arrows) happen slowly and take increasingly more time, while producing less gains.
Most sources put the average 3-year-old’s vocabulary around 1,000 words
This last bit is meant as encouragement! 😉
Step #3- The dreaded grammar
Step #3 deals with one of the most despised parts of learning a foreign language—the grammar.
However, I do have more good news for you.
If you use the same method for only concerning your study time with the most necessary concepts, you can eliminate a lot of wasted effort.
Step #3 is a two-parter.
The first part deals with identifying eight sentences that allows your brain to understand how the language is set up and how it differs from English.
The second part functions much like Step #2, where we used the 80-20 principle (80% of results come from 20% of efforts). We’ll apply it to choosing the most useful pronouns + verb tenses which speed up your learning by focusing on less.
I don’t take credit for part one, as the sentences come from a published work back in 2007 by Tim Ferriss, where he identified some of the most useful constructions in English for gauging how difficult learning any new language could be.
Although this was not his original intention, we can benefit by adapting his work and translating it, allowing us to see the most common sentence structures in Spanish.
The reasons these sentences work are because they highlight verb conjugation, gender + number (of nouns), direct and indirect objects, pronouns and verb tense (present, past, future, etc.).
Don’t worry about the grammar terms! Just check out the sentences and it should make more sense.
- The apple is red.
- It is John’s apple.
- I give John the apple.
- We give him the apple.
- He gives it to John.
- She gives it to him.
- I have to give it to him.
- I want to give it to her.
- La manzana es roja.
- Es la manzana de John.
- Le doy la manzana a John.
- Le damos la manzana a John.
- (Él) se la da a John.
- (Ella) se la da a él.
- Tengo que dársela a él.
- Quiero dársela a ella.
From these sentences, we can see how the sentence structure in Spanish differs from English and begin to adapt to it.
We can also use these sentences while learning the 1,000 most frequently used words and start substituting nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs, giving us thousands of possibilities for communication.
Let’s look at how you can use the existing structures, replacing words to give you new ideas and to fit any conversation.
The apple is red.
La manzana es roja.
The game is fun.
El juego es divertido.
It is John’s apple.
La manzana es de John.
It is Jackie’s car.
El carro es de Jackie.
I give John the apple.
Le doy la manaza a John.
You gave Jill the money.
Le diste el dinero a Jill.
We give him the apple.
Le damos la manaza a él.
They gave her the cellphone.
Le dieron el celular a ella.
*Going forward, since we use a masculine noun in sentence #4 (el celular), we’re referring to it with its direct object pronoun (lo) instead of (la) which referred to (la manzana)*
He gives it to John.
(Él) se la da a John.
She gave it to Jane.
(Ella) se lo dio a Jane.
She gives it to him.
(Ella) se la da a él.
He gives it to her.
(Él) se lo da a ella.
I have to give it to him.
Tengo que dársela a él.
You have to send it to him.
Tienes que mandárselo a él.
I want to give it to her.
Quiero dársela a ella.
They want to send it to him.
Quieren mandárselo a él.
These above eight sentence structures are powerful for revealing how Spanish sentences are constructed.
But more importantly, they’re flexible. As I did in the second set, you can change the subject, verbs, verb tense and objects using those 1,000 words to fit most situations you come across in conversation.
The reason this step is a two-parter is because there’s a way to strategize which pronouns, verbs and verb tenses you should learn first.
This second part takes the 80/20 principle and applies it to those concepts.
If you analyze the most frequently occurring verbs and verb tenses, you see that singular pronouns (I, you, he/she/it) come up much more often than plural forms.
This reflects the real world.
- You talk about yourself a lot—your thoughts, feelings, plans
- You frequently talk one-on-one with someone else, thus the “you” form needs prioritized
- And you often refer to one other person, giving us the “he/she/it” form
Therefore, it makes sense to first prioritize those pronouns and how they affect verb conjugation before the others.
The next part would be to focus your time on the verb tenses (past, present, future, etc.) that get used most often.
If we explore the first 1,000 most frequently occurring spoken words, we find that the present, simple past, imperfect past (yes, there’s two past tenses in Spanish) and present subjunctive are used more often than anything else.
We should initially focus our efforts on these two findings.
The chart below is only about 1/3 of the total conjugations for the verb estar. YIKES.
Rather than memorizing estar like this,
we should instead concentrate on the most frequent forms first, then move onto another verb before finally coming back to fill in the gaps.
Since this was a long section, let’s take a second to review where we stand up to this point:
- Get comfortable with sounds
- Learn a good chunk of the 1,000 most frequently used words
- Understand basic sentence structure & strategically learn verbs + verb tenses
Step #4- Listening Comprehension (solo)
Access to Spanish content from all around the world is so ubiquitous now, you can swipe through your phone and listen to native speakers from Madrid to Montevideo in less than 30 seconds.
Wanna compare the Spanish in Santo Domingo vs. Santiago? You can do it.
There’s a mountain of resources at your disposal if you know where to look and how to get the most of out of them.
Pick a neutral, easy-to understand accent and try to model your pronunciation after it.
An example could be a country like Colombia or Mexico. In addition to intelligibility, both countries benefit from producing a ton of content in terms of music, movies, shows and news. This is in large part due to population—Colombia has 50 million people and Mexico has over 125 million people.
Picking an accent allows you to dial in your pronunciation and avoid the difficulty of jumping between accents, which can slow down progress.
This isn’t mandatory; I’ve just found that it’s helpful, and so I REALLY suggest you try it.
If you plan on only visiting Argentina or Spain, choose either of those. Pick an accent based on your situation and personal goals, like we discussed at the beginning of the guide.
Implement more active listening and less passive listening into your studying.
What the heck is the difference?
Passive listening would be putting on music, or a tv show in your target language, but not engaging with it. You’re doing something in the background, like cleaning, exercising or lying in bed scrolling through Twitter while the movie is on.
Although you’re hearing the sounds, you’re not acting on what you’re listening to.
Passive listening won’t get you anywhere close to comprehension. In contrast, it can be a good exercise once you already know the language.
Active listening on the other hand, requires you to engage. The best form of this is a real conversation, which we’ll get to in the next section. Let’s stick to listening-only here.
Examples of active listening:
Movies and Netflix can be good ways to practice active listening.
This could be a sample exercise you follow:
- Sit in a quiet room
- Eliminate all other distractions
- Watch a 5-10-minute clip of your choice
- Use context to help you pick out big ideas
- Watch it again, but this time write down the big ideas
- Watch it again, but this time turn the subtitles on
- Compare how you did
After step 7 of the exercise, if you need to translate some of the subtitles, do it!
Use this strategy to listen to podcasts that also have their notes transcribed, repeating steps 1-7. These are often limited to language-learning podcasts. However, they’re one of the fastest-growing tools for learning Spanish.
Another gold mine for this type of active listening is YouTube videos.
The quantity of people who speak Spanish, going about their daily lives, giving you access to real-world conversations is incredible.
Take the time to search for a Youtuber whom you enjoy watching. This fits squarely with the very first tip of picking an accent and sticking with it.
As a bonus, if you’re interested in a specific country, you can really start to “transport” yourself to that country through their videos, see the country and pick up some local slang that you wouldn’t otherwise hear.
Learning Spanish is about building a connection with the language. Having a go-to person to follow in Spanish can give you some sense of familiarity and comfort, which makes learning a language more enjoyable.
Make your active listening drills fun, or else you won’t continue doing them.
Just steer clear of the YouTube comment section.
Here’s a recommendation for a YouTube channel that I’ve followed over the years.
The last active listening recommendation I’ll make is for an app like Duolingo.
I like this app because you get the chance to interact with the audio. It gives you immediate confirmation of how well you did with the exercises.
However, I’d caution using apps too much because your smartphone is inherently distracting with things like Instagram, Twitter and Reddit just a few swipes away.
These active listening exercises are just a sample. You can create your own from any source you’d like. The point is that you should be:
- interested in the subject
- engaged with it
- completely free of distractions
- able to verify how well you did
Step #5- Speaking Practice
This step is both the most frightening and the most essential step of them all.
It’s the sink or swim step.
If you want to speak Spanish pronto, you have to practice speaking!
I hope you read that and thought, “Duh.”
Grab a friend who speaks Spanish and talk with him or her.
Your friend is the easiest conversation partner because you’re already comfortable with each other. If you usually converse in English, ask to switch to Spanish for a few minutes. Buy ‘em lunch if you have to!
Unfortunately, this tip doesn’t apply to everyone.
Join any number of language-exchange groups.
You list what language you want to learn, and you’re contacted by others who want to learn English in exchange for Spanish practice.
This requires a little bit of luck, patience and open mindedness because you’ll be potentially exchanging with someone very different from you.
In my opinion this option is great for getting over your initial jitters of speaking and for asking whatever questions you have in a laid-back environment.
The reason this tip is so effective is because your Spanish-speaking partner is struggling just as much with English as you are with Spanish! He or she understands how hard it is to put yourself out there, forming a mutual respect between you two.
You can try a free service like, mylanguageexchange.com for language specifically.
Alternatively, Couchsurfing, Facebook and Meetup have language exchanges in addition to their other offerings.
Use a paid service to find a Spanish tutor.
I’ve saved this tip for last because it requires payment.
However, because of the far-reaching arms of the internet, tutors from all over the world are available 24/7 to help you.
A Spanish tutor is also 100% focused on you. You’re paying him or her to teach you exactly what you want. Whether that’s to correct pronunciation, explain grammar or practice your conversation, it’s up to you.
Some services offer trial classes for as little as $2 per 30 minutes, allowing you to test out your new potential tutor before signing up for a set of classes.
However, I’m not here to advertise online Spanish tutors. Not yet at least.
So, until I’ve done further research, you’ll have to experiment with the marketplace that you like best.
The last bit I’ll include refers to both Step #4 and Step #5.
One of the most beneficial parts of having a conversation is that there’s a real sense of fear or nervousness as you begin to converse in a foreign language. These feelings are essential for breaking down the barrier between Spanish on paper and the live version of Spanish.
Stress is a highly-researched human response.
Finding an optimal stress level that produces enough fear to make you focus, but not enough to cause failure can increase your performance.
If you’re curious at all about optimal stress or anxiety, read a little more about what’s known as the Yerkes–Dodson law.
Here’s an image representing the curve as defined by the original Yerkes–Dodson law.
Spanish conversation might qualify as a difficult task initially, so too much stress will definitely be counterproductive. But you can still benefit from a conversational setting, like a language exchange via Skype, in order to “manufacture” a semi-stressful situation.
Conversation is the purest form of active listening. Responding appropriately to your conversation partner requires that you’re actively engaged.
It also forces your brain to not only recall the vocabulary and grammar rules, but to formulate them into a real sentence, in real-time in the company of a real person.
This takes focus and is the ultimate test to see how well you’ve understood and can implement the material you’ve been studying
I hope this the strategy I’ve outlined gives you some perspective on how you might approach learning Spanish.
SpeakSpanishPronto is centered around the ideas I’ve discussed here. I tried to walk a tight rope writing this guide, by giving you everything you need to know without overwhelming you.
I’ll be expanding on each step of this guide using long-form posts, videos, audios and whatever else I can think of to demonstrate each section in more detail. There’s a lot to talk about and I’ve left out quite a bit in order to keep this to a manageable length.
But at the end of the day, it’s like a buffet—take as much of what you like as you like and leave the bits you don’t find particularly appealing behind.
Last but not least, please leave some feedback if you have a chance.
If something wasn’t clear, let me know.
If you’ve had success or failure with one of the above-mentioned strategies, share it. Maybe you have another strategy that wasn’t here that you feel would benefit from further discussion. I’m always adding to my arsenal, so feel free to drop it in a comment.