How I’m learning Spanish

I just hit my 30 day streak in Duolingo, so I thought I’d go over the tools and resources I’m currently using in my Spanish learning journey. I’ll start by simply listing them, then going into a bit of what they do, why I’m using them, etc. Also I want to talk a bit about my process, my “daily routine” so to speak, and what I’m hoping to find in the future to help me learn.

Current tools

These are things I’m currently using actively. Maybe not daily, but actively.

Easy Spanish Step by Step

I gotta admit, I was skeptical of this book. It feels very “Learn <something super complex> in 24 Hours” based on the title alone. However, it came well recommended, and it has been a great resource for me so far.

For me, reading is the gateway to learning just about anything. Better if said reading walks me through the learning process. Reference books are amazing, but tutorials are better. This book is much more about what to learn in what order than how to actually go about learning it, but once I stopped searching for an Anki deck that covered the stuff covered in this book and just started making my own cards, it became a lot more useful to me.

There are points where it just lists off huge lists of vocabulary. If you tried to read it cover to cover in one shot you wouldn’t retain anything. You’d probably be completely lost by the end. There actually might be a good reason to do a first pass, cover to cover, before trying to actually retain any of it, but that’s not how I’m using it. I’m walking through chapter by chapter, using it as a source of new Anki cards and explanations of concepts and knowledge. It introduces ser vs estar in the second chapter, which also introduces verb conjugations as a concept, all of which are *incredibly* important parts of Spanish, at least as I’ve gathered so far.

Good stuff. I’m on chapter 4 I think? I’ve been trying to avoid pushing forward on it until I’ve caught up with all of my Anki cards!

Duolingo

I tried using this several years ago as my primary (only?) tool to learn Spanish and it just didn’t stick. It didn’t really go into any detail as to why things were the way they were, I guess hoping you’d either look it up once you noticed the pattern or something? Like it will show “we eat” on “nosotros comemos”, but doesn’t show you the list of conjugations of comer or anything. I think they literally just within the past week or so changed that, however, as each lesson subject seems to have a little description box next to it you can click on and it’ll talk about the things the lesson will teach you.

I like it because it’s gamified. It is a great source of new content for my Anki cards. It gets me thinking less about individual words and more about sentences and phrases. I also like that it has some components of listening practice and has “what’s this is Spanish” as well as “what’s this in English”.

It has a speaking component, but I find it to be fairly buggy in its actual functionality. The number of times I have felt like I spoke the words perfectly and it rejected it to the point of saying “let’s move on”, as well as the times that I’ve messed up half way through and gone so far as to spew gibberish for a couple of seconds to hopefully force it to fail so I can try again, or the times I’ve literally said nothing and it’s been accepted, leads me to believe it’s not the greatest thing. But it *does* get me to actually speak the words out loud, which is good, and I do, so that’s good.

The questions are very repetitive and sometimes even directly duplicated within the same lesson. “How do you say ‘the baby'” is a good example. I’ve seen that question come up 3-4 times in one round at times. Up to level one of each topic seems to be a way to introduce you to the new things, with the first half of each round being introducing them and the last half being to review, and past that, repeating lessons is just repeating the same things, so what I’ve been doing is get to level one in a subject, add all of the stuff to my Anki deck, and do one lesson a day per category, with lots of active (not yet level 5) categories going, and pushing forward with new subjects (or a chapter of the book) when I run out or run low on new Anki cards in my deck.

It’s likely I’ll be dropping this at some point, as Clozemaster, which claims to be a good “post-Duolingo” tool, may in fact be a replacement for Duolingo for me, but I’ll talk about that more in its section.

It has groups and friends and such, and a “pro” subscription to remove the ads (this is actually a good counter-example to my ad-supported -> ad-driven argument, and a reason I still use it, despite the ads), but since I’m currently doing this mostly on my own, those things are lost on me. It has a “practice” mode, which … I think shows you random questions from all of the content you’ve “learned”, but I’m not sure how mixed together those things get or if it’s just a random selection of questions from your topics. I don’t use it much, unless I feel like grinding on some questions for a bit, as I tend to try to do more new Anki cards if I get bored and want to do some more practice.

Overall I’d say it’s a decent tool, and a great onramp, but it should not remotely be the only tool you use, and don’t expect to be fluent after you complete your tree. And if you have any sort of “but why” question, look elsewhere for those answers.

Anki

Anki is a general purpose flashcard app. At its core is the concept of “spaced repetition”, which tries to show you cards again at the point just before you’d forget, to more strongly reinforce the material in your brain. It’s cool. It’s extremely flexible, which can make it hard to get started, and it was easy for me to get distracted by trying to figure out how to make a shared deck I grabbed for the book do what I wanted (and nearly made me stop trying to learn).

The biggest piece of advice I can give on this subject is: make your own cards. You’ll eventually figure out what you want on your cards / notes. Also, notes are kind of like the facts, and cards are the things that test your facts. It’s a one to many relationship with notes -> cards, though the UI doesn’t do a great job of making that clear.

Speaking of UI, Anki’s is fairly terrible. The actual “I want to practice my flash cards” interface is great, at least on the iOS and MacOS versions. There’s a sync service that enables you to sync your decks and practice information, and it’s all very functional, but not the most highly polished thing. Also, for many of the things you’ll likely want to do with Anki, you’re going to need a computer. The iOS app (I don’t have any android devices so I don’t have any opinions there) is good for creating new notes/cards if you’re only doing very basic front/back types of cards with no multimedia content and not using custom note types or multiple cards for notes or anything. It is, however, very good for studying. It shows you a card. You tap on the screen to see “the back”, you tap whether you got it right or not, and varying degrees of got it right, and it takes you to the next card.

Anki has support for hints, for multimedia (at least audio, and I imagine images at the very least) and the cards are *extremely* customizable. There is support for plugins, but I’m not sure how those things play out when talking about mobile apps. I try to stick with the most vanilla of features and don’t use any plugins. There are some plugins that seem like might be useful, so I might check them out in the future, but for the moment I’m getting by fine.

I started off with just basic front/back. But then I realized I wanted more. For instance, with nouns, the book (in Chapter 1) mentions a bunch of, not so much rules, but more hints about the gender of nouns. Like nouns ending in “-a” tend to be feminine. Some nouns can be both, and you sometimes change “-o” to “-a”. But the biggest thing it mentions is that these aren’t hard and fast rules. There are exceptions. So you really need to learn the gender along with each noun.

So, in my brain, that’s actually 2 things I want to learn about each noun. What it is, and what gender it is. And I might want to do that separately? So I did. I changed the note fields from Spanish/English to Spanish/English/Gender. I made these a separate note type just for nouns so I could then make special cards just for these notes. One shows the Spanish (including gender, just because) and asks me what the English is, and the other shows me the Spanish and a little blank just before it, prompting me to answer what the gender is. I used to also English -> Spanish, and pronunciation, but the English->Spanish cards I think I want to mostly avoid, and the pronunciation cards were kinda redundant, as I was pretty much always speaking things aloud as I read them, no matter if it was a pronunciation card or not, and culling these cards cut out a pretty significant amount of the cards in my deck, which means I have less new cards going at any given point, so I should be able to cover more content.

I’ve done this same sort of thing with other types of word, too. Like I have one for verbs which helps me practice conjugations of the verb, but I also just culled most of the regular verbs from the deck, at least the conjugations, simply because I had 7 different cards for each noun and it was getting ridiculous. I added a couple of notes that covered “the rules”, and I continue adding irregular conjugations, so I’m practicing the oddballs while hoping that learning and knowing the rules very solidly will help me with the rest. Additionally, as I start learning more conjugations, I’m going to want a better tool, as there are just way too many conjugations to try to have an anki card for each one. Wayyyyyyy too many.

Clozemaster

Speaking of better tools for conjugations. One of the features of Clozemaster that I haven’t yet played with is conjugation practice!

Anywho, Clozemaster is a tool I saw mentioned in an /r/LearnJapanese post (I previously was trying to learn Japanese, and the subreddit is still interesting enough that I subscribe, but it’s mostly an in-one-ear-out-the-other sort of thing) which combines a large phrase library, an ordered list of words, and clozes into a tool to help you learn languages. Clozes are a new thing I’d never heard of before, but something that Anki does support, too. They are “fill in the blank”. It shows you a sentence with a space missing and you choose or type in the correct word. Awesome.

Currently, my Anki deck is mostly this -> that sort of things. There are a few sentences and such in there, especially ones trying to cover some aspect of the learning process (ser vs estar, for instance) but it’s to the point where I mostly just know the answer based on what the card is, not so much the concept that is at play. It has been useful for some things, but I feel like I need a LOT source material to be effective, and I just don’t have that right now. However, Clozemaster does. And it comes up with sentences for you. And has spaced repetition stuff built in, though I’m not certain how best to use it, I feel like I can’t make a dent in my reviews queue and that things keep getting repeated. But I’m sure I’ll figure out how best to use it eventually, it’s only my second day using it after all.

It does a couple of things I am not getting elsewhere at the moment: exposes me to a *lot* of words I don’t know, especially conjunctions and such. It also exposes me to lots of different verb conjugations. I couldn’t tell you whether something is a past subjunctive or a preiterate indicative (are those even things? See what I mean?), but I can see a conjugated verb, identify the stem, and suddenly at least know what verb is in play. Which may not be the best way to learn conjugations, but it gets me reading more sentences and such, which, again, reading is my gateway.

On the subject of verb conjugations, it has a conjugation practice function. I tried it, but since I have such a limited verb set right now and relatively few conjugations, it’s totally lost to me. I want to see if there’s a way to limit the verbs being used to a subset, and the conjugations, but for now I can just look forward to the day I add that to my daily routine.

It also has a feature for “tough grammar points”. In the book it introduced early on ser and estar and said when to use which. Of course, that was a while ago, and that all went completely out the window since I wasn’t practicing it. Oh, I knew what the conjugations were, but I didn’t know wheter I wanted están or son, or somos or estamos or what the rules were. Since the book had some exercises that covered these exact things (with Clozes) I just plopped those into Anki (not as actual clozes, I haven’t tried using that feature yet) and drilled on them. It was effective. But again, I’ve started learning more the correct answer for the card rather than practicing the rule. I just don’t have enough material, and coming up with sentences is difficult. But here we are, exactly the thing I wanted. Oh, and Clozemaster also introduced me to “haber”, which is the verb “to have”. But “tener” is also “to have”. So in my notes, there’s literally a “tener vs haber” checklist item, in there as a “figure out when to use which and make some anki cards to drill that”, but there, in the “tough grammar points” section, tener / haber practice. Glorious. I plunked down for the annual pro subscription almost immediately.

By default, when it shows you a cloze it has the English translation underneath. The English translation is quite often necessary, to even know what word is being asked for. Sometimes you can figure it out from context (which is part of why clozes are awesome), but there are literally clozes in their library that are one word, so when they show up it’s just a blank line saying “what goes in here?”. Not very useful. However, I found when I was reading a card, I would read the Spanish, and I was trying to figure out what the Spanish said, but my eyes would drift to the English translation directly below, meaning I would not really even read the Spanish, and I would mostly just try to figure out which English word the cloze was asking for and enter that one. This isn’t useless, but I didn’t feel like I was getting as much value out of it. Fortunately, there’s a setting which allows you to change whether or not the translation shows up, and when. Right now there are 3 options: always, only after you’ve answered, and never. The only after you’ve answered option seems to be a bit misleading, because while it definitely does show up after you’ve answered, you can also show the translation prior to answering by tapping, which, as I’ve already said, is often necessary to even be able to answer. This is the option I’m currently using, and in the short amount of time I’ve been using it, it has improved my experience. I read the Spanish. I try to figure out what it says. I try to figure out what word it’s asking for even before I look at the multiple choice list of answers below (there is a “type your answer” mode, but given that I’m often dealing with verb conjugations I don’t yet know, I opt to stick with multiple choice for now), and if I can’t, I’ll show the translation. It has been immensely useful already, and I’ve seriously only been using this site for 2 days. Shut up and take my money.

Span¡shD!ct

It’s a dictionary. You can go Spanish to English or English to Spanish. It does some translation stuff, but I usually just use Google Translate if I’m looking up more than just a word.

It’s where I source the audio files for my pronunciations in my Anki deck, as they are real humans speaking the words (which sometimes has funny results), and I feel like that’s very important. It’s especially useful for “g” and “c” sounds, because I’m not sure if those are always consistent how they’re pronounced from word to word, and if they are I certainly don’t remember the rule (though I know where to find it if there is one, Chapter 1 of the book, actually maybe even the preface), but monkey-hear-monkey-speak is very useful as a check to make sure I’m pronouncing things as well as I can.

It’s also where I look up verb conjugations. On the page for each verb there’s a “conjugations” tab which lists out every conjugation for the verb and highlights any irregularities. Amazing. Terrifying that there are so many, but amazing that this exists and is so well organized.

There are also articles going into various aspects of the language, like possessive adjectives or negative and infinitive words, which is really REALLY handy to me when I start noticing a pattern in some words and want to know if it is actually a pattern and if so, are there rules that govern the pattern that I can apply more generally. I’d much rather know the why rather than just the what, and this supplies a lot of that.

My only real complaint with it at the moment is that it seems to have a pretty sizable space for ads on each page, and while ublock is effective at blocking them, it has whine-text about me blocking ads. So, while I find it to be a very useful tool, and it’s also another counter-example to my ad-supported/ad-driven thing, the size and number of the ads leads me to believe they would be distracting, terrible ads, rather than unobtrusive text ads or whatever, and so I won’t be unblocking the ads. I’d love a way to give them some money, because it has certainly been a very useful tool for me and will continue to be going forward, but showing me ads is not the way they’ll get that.

Update: I did end up finding a way to give them money, they have an iOS app which is actually quite good, and that has a $2.99 annual subscription to remove ads, which seems to also remove them from the website if I’m logged in. Cool!

El País

It’s a news site. I’ll pull this up sometimes and look at headlines. I am mostly using it right now as a way to gauge how much progress I’m making. The more of the text I can understand, the better I’m doing. And eventually it’ll probably just become a part of my daily routine to read a few articles, as I get to the point where I can read most of the words and not just get vague ideas of what’s being said. Again, reading being my gateway, this is something I want to keep available to me.

Past / Inactive tools

There are a couple of things I’ve come across in my journey which I don’t use anymore for one reason or another (most likely they just didn’t really stick) but I think are worth mentioning.

Readlang

Readlang is a site where you specify what level of Spanish you’re at and it’ll show you text that’s been rated at that. Letters from people, snippets of books, whatever. I’m not actually sure what all they have, but it seemed pretty awesome. Their trial to paid barrier is pretty fierce, so it’s not something I’ve played with very much, but it does seem really cool. The first thing I “read” in Spanish was using this site and it filled me with an immense sense of pride that I’m making some progress. You can highlight words and phrases inline and it’ll translate them for you and even go as far as to create flashcards (in its flashcard function) for the stuff you’ve highlighted. Super cool. I do hope to revisit it at some point, but it wasn’t mind blowing enough for me to plunk down right away on, and the pay barrier is too low for me to get enough out of the free functionality to keep me using it even just a little bit as part of my routine.

Daily routine

Right now my daily routine is to go through all of my active subjects in Duolingo and do one round of each of those. I usually do this early in the morning while still in bed cuddling with Bean (my cat). It has replaced my early morning reddit and google news perusing, so that’s a positive, I guess?

At some point during the day I’ll go through my Anki stuff for the day. If I am feeling up for it, I’ll generally do another round of new cards, just because I have so many of them that I really would like to go a bit faster through them if I can. I don’t want to burn out though, and I feel like there are diminishing returns on churning through new cards, there’s only so much your brain can take on at once, so keeping the new stuff fairly limited is probably not a bad idea.

And now that I have Clozemaster, I’m going through and hitting my goal on that for the day, which is 500 points. I think I may have gone a bit overboard with the “new” questions on the first day, and now I have a big pile of reviews, but I’ll work my way through those, too.

During the course of doing all of this I have a little Notes document where I take some basic notes. It’s more of a todo list than actual notes. I mostly use it for new cards I want to make in Anki (like if I learn a new word from one of my sources) and I’ll jot down ideas for either improvements to my Anki deck or to my process.

Sometimes I’ll pull up El País and see if there’s anything interesting or readable on there, but it’s not really part of any routine just yet. It will be, though.

The future

Right now one of my goals is to make it to the end of El principito, the Spanish translation of The Little Prince. I’ve gotten through about 3 paragraphs so far! I haven’t read this book before in any language, so I think it’ll be a good challenge, but not one that’s too hard. For some reason in my searching for easy Spanish language books I kept finding Don Quixote, which is *not* an “easy” book to read, in any language.

I need to figure out some way to practice listening. Duolingo has some basic listening stuff, and you can make it so those are the only questions you get, which I’ll probably do, but I want to do more “real world” listening. There are lots of podcasts for Spanish learners, I’ll probably find some sort of Spanish language video news source I can watch some of, etc. It’s certainly going to be a challenge, and I’m not really sure how to approach it other than “listen and try to find bits and pieces you can understand, and keep doing it”, but it’s far enough away at this point I’m not too worried about it yet.

Eventually I want to do actual speaking, too. Preferably with a native Spanish speaker. There are various apps online which can help connect you with a partner to “trade” language learning with, like HelloTalk, and there’s always the option of finding a tutor.

From there it’ll probably be starting to attend local Spanish learner’s meetups. This is going to be super scary, but I can only imagine these things tend to be pretty newbie friendly, or they have newbie friendly sessions or whatever. I’m excited about the idea, but also a bit terrified. I don’t expect this to happen for 3-4 months or more, and maybe that’s even being optimistic. I’ve never learned a new language before, so this is all new to me! It’ll be fine, though!

Conclusion

Ok, that’s a lot of words. I’m going to stop for now. If you’ve made it this far, thanks! I hope it was interesting!