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10 Best Books to Learn Spanish on Your Own in 2022
Do you want to learn Spanish on your own in 2022 but don’t know which book to get?
Or maybe you don’t even know if you can teach yourself Spanish and that’s the reason you keep postponing your goal of learning a second language.
Either way, I’m here to help you.
First, let me assure you that you can learn Spanish on your own—and these days you have all the needed resources easily available.
Secondly, I’m introducing you to the 10 best books to learn Spanish on your own to help you choose the right one for you!
Table of Contents:
Can you teach yourself spanish, 10 best books to learn spanish, start learning spanish on your own today.
Learning Spanish on your own may be a challenging project, but it’s totally doable . Nowadays, with all the resources available for language learners, it’s common to find people trying to teach themselves Spanish.
So, how can you learn Spanish on your own, and which books can help you to achieve your goals?
If you’re going to go down the “books route,” instead of using other self-study options such as an app or a software program, it’s important that you use a combination of textbooks, workbooks, lesson books, grammar books, and literature to cover all the areas of the language learning process.
With this in mind, I’ve put together this diverse top 10 lists with the best books to learn Spanish by yourself, which includes books for beginners and intermediate students, as well as useful links to Amazon where you can buy them.
Neither I nor HSA are Amazon affiliates or receive any benefit from recommending or linking to these books. I’m a Spanish teacher, and I’m sharing my professional opinion with you as part of my passion for helping people to learn my beautiful language.
1. Living Language Spanish, Complete Edition
The Living Language Spanish, Complete Edition is a thorough multimedia program that includes three books with 46 lessons, a notebook, a grammar summary, and review exercises. It also comes with nine audio CDs and an online learning option where you can study flashcards, play games, and take quizzes.
If you’re planning to teach yourself Spanish, this is one of the best options on the market, as it includes a little bit of everything and gives you the help you need to achieve your goals. According to ThoughtCo, this method was created for the US State Department . Now, people who want to learn a language all around the world use it.
Buy on Amazon .
Try the Essential Edition .
2. Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish
This is a classic Spanish learning book for English speakers. Published in 1953 by Margarita Madrigal and illustrated by pop art icon Andy Warhol, Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish has stood the test of time and continues to be one of the most sought-after Spanish textbooks.
Madrigal’s approach avoids memorization and focuses on cognates to help you to identify Spanish words easily. This book helps Spanish learners form sentences in the first lesson and includes a helpful pronunciation key. The only con with this little Spanish learning gem is that it doesn’t include anything to help you develop your listening skills.
Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish has been chosen by the readers of Storyteller. Travel as “ the best book to learn Spanish .”
3. Easy Spanish Step-By-Step
Easy Spanish Step-By-Step is an excellent option for beginners (level A1), as it takes you through the 15 steps of learning a language, according to the author’s approach.
This book introduces you to the most important Spanish grammar rules and helps you to learn over 300 verbs and other key terms. It also includes exercises and interesting readings, covering most aspects of the Spanish language learning process.
The Times of India states that Easy Spanish Step-By-Step “ will help you get your hands on the language in a systematic and step-by-step manner .”
Buy on Amazon .
Intermediate students may also buy the complete version of this collection here .
4. See It and Say It in Spanish
Another classic book by Margarita Madrigal, See It and Say It in Spanish is the ultimate Spanish pocket guide based on the word-and-picture method. For every new word, it includes a picture to help you automatically learn the meaning of that word.
This delightful book is designed for beginners and includes useful everyday words and phrases, a traveler’s world list, a pronunciation guide, and a detailed grammar section.
A renowned Spanish blog notes that See It and Say It in Spanish “ gives you the vocabulary you need to start expressing yourself quickly and meaningfully in Spanish .”
5. Collins Easy Learning: Spanish Conversation
One of the most popular and successful approaches to learning a language is the one that focuses on developing students’ conversational skills. Collins Easy Learning: Spanish Conversation does exactly that, taking the student through real-life conversations and the terms and phrases needed for those situations.
The book includes 12 units centered around a theme such as business, school, home, or social media and includes much-needed verb and grammar lessons to help you build your own phrases. Spanish Conversation also provides students with a glossary and free audio downloads to help you develop your listening skills.
On Goodreads.com, it has an average rating of 4.04, and one user called it “ one of the best books for learning Spanish by yourself .”
6. Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Spanish Grammar
Complete Spanish Grammar is one of the most comprehensive Spanish learning books on the market. Its part of the recognized Practice Makes Perfect series that includes Spanish Verb Tenses and Spanish Vocabulary , among many other language learning books.
Complete Spanish Grammar is a comprehensive guide to all grammar-related things in Spanish. It comes with detailed explanations, lots of examples, and a multitude of exercises. I like that it also includes online resources where you find audio recordings, flashcards, and an extensive glossary. It even comes with its own app!
FluentU says that “ the good thing about this book is that it offers a wide variety of exercises for different learning styles like .”
7. No Nonsense Spanish Workbook
I consider No Nonsense Spanish the best workbook on the market for self-learning Spanish. Its 200+ pages are full of useful information and tons of exercises focused on helping you understand Spanish grammar by working with Spanish grammar.
This excellent workbook includes chapter quizzes, vocabulary learning activities, grammar practice sections, verb charts, creative writing activities, answer keys, and bonus holiday activities.
My colleague Rafael Parra calls it “ one of the best books to learn Spanish ” and adds that “this book is great because it doesn’t pretend the internet doesn’t exist but it embraces it instead.”
8. Complete Spanish: A Teach Yourself Program
This Spanish textbook provides students with so many resources that it merits the Teach Yourself name of this series. With 25 learning units that cover the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing, Complete Spanish is really a complete option.
This teach yourself program includes two CDs with audio material, cultural notes, tests, tracking system, and a full-color book. Complete Spanish is designed to take beginner students from level A1 to the B1/B2 upper intermediate level.
Popular language learning author and recognized polyglot Benny Lewis says about Complete Spanish , “ I like the process that they use more than other courses, because they don’t try to overload you with grammar, and they try to give you some example conversations .”
9. Getting Started With Spanish
As it says on its cover, this lesson book is a great option for beginners and self-taught students. This book was designed with the homeschooling student in mind , taking into consideration the common difficulties this kind of Spanish learner may encounter.
Getting Started With Spanish introduces only one new word or concept in each of its 178 lessons and includes exercises, answer keys, pronunciation guides, audio files, and glossary.
ThoughtCo. says that “ students enjoy this book because it is simple and clear .”
10. Mastering Spanish Vocabulary
This one is a huge collection of Spanish vocabulary with over 13,000 entries and around 10 hours of audio. If you’re just starting your Spanish learning journey, Mastering Spanish Vocabulary is a useful tool.
The book is divided into 24 subject themes including medical terms, business terms, clothing, food, and art and culture.
According to Benny Lewis, “ the power of this book is if you have certain conversations you know that you’re likely to have, then you can flick ahead to that category. This has been great for me .”
If you really want to learn Spanish on your own, there are many ways to do it . Reading free online Spanish books is one way, learning grammar at home is another way, and getting one of the best books to learn Spanish from this list is one more way to do it.
Supplement your learning with the help of a certified professional who can take your fluency to the next level in flexible, affordable, and easy-to-access online Spanish classes. Sign up for a free trial class at Homeschool Spanish Academy with one of our certified, native Spanish-speaking teachers from Guatemala. They teach over 24,000 actively enrolled students every month, offer flexible scheduling, and tailored Spanish programs .
Join one of the 40,000 classes that we teach each month and you can experience results like these
“HSA offers very affordable, quality, one on one classes with a native speaker. My son has greatly benefited from taking classes. We have seen his confidence increase as well as his pronunciation improve, because he learns from a native Spanish speaker. HSA has quick, personal customer service. Our family has been very pleased with our experience so far!”
– Erica P. Parent of 1
“HSA offers very affordable, quality, one on one classes with a native speaker. My son has greatly benefited from taking classes. We have seen his confidence increase as well as his pronunciation improve, because he learns from a native Spanish speaker. HSA has quick, personal customer service. I have appreciated the one on one interaction and teaching that my son gets from his teachers. He has gotten to know his teachers, which has increased his confidence in speaking Spanish. Our family has been very pleased with our experience so far!”
– Maple, Parent of 3
“I love that my children have the opportunity to speak with a live person. They get to practice Spanish in a 1-1 setting while improve their speaking, writing and reading skills during their lessons. HSA is a great way to learn Spanish for all ages! My children are 6, 9 and 11. My oldest two (9 and 11) have been taking classes with HSA for almost 2 years now. They love seeing their teacher each week. They understand the importance of learning several languages. I’ve seen them grow and learn with HSA. I’m excited to see how they will improve the more classes they take. I highly recommend them. You can’t bet learning and speaking with a live teacher. I’ve tried other programs. It’s just not as motivating.”
– Karie Ann, Parent of 3
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10 Best Books to Learn Spanish on Your Own in 2022
Learning Spanish on your own may be a challenging project, but it’s totally doable. Nowadays, with all the resources available for language learners, it’s common to find people trying to teach themselves Spanish.
So, how can you learn Spanish on your own, and which books can help you to achieve your goals?
If you’re going to go down the “books route,” instead of using other self-study options such as an app or a software program, it’s important that you use a combination of textbooks, workbooks, lesson books, grammar books, and literature to cover all the areas of the language learning process.
10 Best Books to Learn Spanish
- Living Language Spanish, Complete Edition
- Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish
- Easy Spanish Step-By-Step
- See It and Say It in Spanish
- Collins Easy Learning: Spanish Conversation
- Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Spanish Grammar
- No Nonsense Spanish Workbook
- Complete Spanish: A Teach Yourself Program
- Getting Started With Spanish
- Mastering Spanish Vocabulary
Read the entire article here: Spanish Academy
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List of the best books to learn Spanish + the best Spanish writers
13 July 2023
From Españolé we have selected some of the best books to learn Spanish. This list includes both grammar and vocabulary guides, as well as readings from different genres and adapted to different proficiency levels. In addition to specific books to prepare for official Spanish exams , such as the DELE, the SIELE or the admission exams required for Spanish universities .
Which books to read while learning Spanish as a foreign language?
Spanish spelling rules and grammar can be complicated, but by reading and watching other cultural products, such as movies and series in Spanish , it becomes easier to assimilate.
Although teachers and schools that teach Spanish courses for foreigners are always looking for more interactive materials, books continue to be a fundamental tool to conduct our classes, do exercises or recommend readings to reinforce knowledge and expand vocabulary .
Many Españolé students ask us which are the best books to learn Spanish as a second language.
Our answer is usually the same: depending on your level, your preferences, and your learning objectives, we can give you recommendations, although we always follow some general criteria.
For example, all books to learn Spanish should be adapted to the age of the student (especially in the case of children and teenagers) and to their level of Spanish.
Ideally, the textbooks should have a theoretical and a practical part, and include scenarios similar to the ones the student might experience in the real world.
If you are looking for a good book to learn Spanish, it is also important for it to be entertaining , to include illustrations that will help you understand what is being explained in the text and to add additional material, such as an activity book or a mobile App, to reinforce the theory or practice pronunciation. Choosing books written by Spanish authors can also help you learn Spanish fast and familiarize yourself with the Spanish culture by reading their books.
Books to learn Spanish + Spanish writers
In addition to the “Manual de la Nueva Gramática de la Lengua Española” and the “Ortografía de la Lengua Española”, published by the Real Academia de la Lengua Española and that we should always take as a reference to solve any doubts, we have prepared a list with some of the best books to learn Spanish.
Do you know any of them?
- Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish . Originally published in 1953, this book by Margarita Madrigal has helped many students learn Spanish over the years. As a curiosity point, we have to mention that the artist Andy Warhol created the illustrations!
- Easy Spanish Step-By-Step . The difference between this book and other manuals is that it makes grammar simpler, presenting it as “building blocks” that helps the student to learn grammar, verbs, and vocabulary. It is especially recommended for very methodical and organized students.
- Easy Spanish Phrase Book . With this book, Dr. Pablo García Loaeza proposes to learn Spanish with phrases. Although it is not a grammar manual as such, “Easy Spanish Phrase Book” is useful because of its “travel” format and because it works as a pronunciation guide that will help you avoid the most common mistakes foreigners make when communicating in Spanish .
- Spanish Frequency Dictionary . The four volumes of the “Spanish Frequency Dictionary” are designed for bilingual or native English speakers. The books are available at Essential, Intermediate, Advanced and Master levels, include practical everyday vocabulary and pay special attention to the explanation of phonetics – pronouncing the hardest words in Spanish will be much easier!
- 501 Spanish Verbs . We end this first selection of books for learning Spanish with a book with a high level of acceptance among teachers and students for its simplicity and usefulness. Basically, this book teaches how to use the most common Spanish verbs with easy-to-follow tables.
Discover the Spanish alphabet and its pronunciation .
Books to learn Spanish A1
These are some of our recommended books for people who are just starting to learn Spanish:
- Practice Makes Perfect: Basic Spanish . This collection of books by Dorothy Richmond has helped many students to get started in studying Spanish. Composed by five volumes, interactive and organized, they have short and simple lessons so that beginner students don’t get stuck with grammar and can learn at their own pace.
- Vocabulary A1 Spanish . This book is one of the basics you should put on your list if you are going to start studying Spanish. It is split by themes and includes specific vocabulary, verbs and common expressions. Very educational and useful to reinforce the knowledge learned in your first Spanish classes.
- Nuevo Sueña (Spanish as a Foreign Language) . This method from Editorial Anaya will allow you to get started in the Spanish language and continue studying until you get an official degree. It includes textbooks, vocabulary, writing, and phonetics from levels A1 to B2.
- Short Stories in Spanish for Beginners . This reading book contains 8 stories from different literary genres. Each has the 1000 most frequently used Spanish words and dialogues to help put them in context. In addition, each story is accompanied by a summary of the plot to contextualize it and a glossary of terms, like a dictionary.
Reading books to learn Spanish for foreigners
Now that we have listed some of the best books for beginners, we recommend you some of the best reading books to learn Spanish.
These are works signed by well-known authors and which are also authentic classics of the Spanish literature.
We have added a small note about their “level” in each of them, how do you like them?
- Leyendas, de Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (low difficulty level) . Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer is one of the best known authors of Spanish Romanticism. Because of its theme and vocabulary, this reading book includes a wide variety of verb tenses and is recommended for any student who wants to become familiar with classic Spanish literature.
- Lorca. La valiente alegría, by Aroa Moreno (low difficulty level) . This book tells the life story of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who was shot during the Spanish Civil War. Written in easy to read language, it introduces Spanish language learners to genres such as poetry and theater.
- Manolito Gafotas, by Elvira Lindo (medium difficulty level) . This novel was a great success in Spain, especially among young readers, and is now considered a good choice for learning Spanish if you are at an intermediate level. Its plot is simple (it tells the adventures of a boy who lives in a working class neighborhood in Madrid) and will allow you to learn a more everyday, conversational language in a fun way.
- El camino, by Miguel Delibes (medium-high difficulty level) . El Camino is a great classic of the Spanish literature. Set in the second half of the 20th century, it tells the story of a boy in post-war Spain. Its narrative is delicate (a true masterpiece!) and the descriptions of characters and places are the true protagonists.
- La sombra del viento, by Carlos Ruiz-Zafón (high difficulty level) . Students with a B2 level of Spanish can consider reading this bestseller that describes a gothic Barcelona and presents a plot full of mysteries and secrets that engage the reader, a real treat for students who love intriguing books!
Books to prepare for the DELE exam
If your short-term goal is to pass this exam, we recommend using several textbooks, depending on your level and whether you already received specific preparation classes for the DELE exam .
The DELE Pack from EDELSA is a good alternative: it has several books organized by levels to work on all the areas necessary to successfully pass this exam.
Other books you can check out are:
- Las claves del nuevo DELE (Editorial Difusión)
- El Cronómetro (Editorial Edinumen)
- Prepare and Practice the DELE (Editorial Octaedro)
SIELE exam preparation books
If your intention is to take an intensive Spanish course to prepare for the SIELE exam, and you are looking for complementary material to support our classes, our recommendation is the manual by Ramón Díez Galán.
It is the most complete book to prepare for the SIELE exam : it contains exercises from level A1 to C1, sample exams, grammar, and recommendations.
At Españolé we encourage our students to complete their Spanish classes with a wide range of readings. Do you have any other suggestions? Share them with us!
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Learning Spanish? Here Are 5 Books I Highly Recommend You Own
- Read time 6 mins
Looking for the best books to learn Spanish?
The real challenge with finding the best Spanish books is not that there aren’t enough resources, but there are too many!
Some great ones, some mediocre and some that just aren’t really worth the money.
So, today I’m going to share with you 5 of the best books to learn Spanish, in my opinion.
I’ve also added some alternative Spanish resource suggestions on to the end of the post in case you’re looking for more!
Let me know in the comment section if there’s a book you’d recommend me adding to this list.
UPDATE: A lot of people ask for our best online Spanish course recommendation. Here it is for those interested:
1. Practice Makes Perfect collection for Spanish
The Spanish Practice Makes Perfect collection is a full series of different books for Spanish that cover pretty much everything you can think of related to Spanish.
In fact, you could probably buy the full series of their Spanish books and just call it a day!
Each book has its own individual focus. The top titles include:
- Complete Spanish Grammar
- Basic Spanish
- Spanish Verb Tenses
- Spanish Conversation (highly recommended)
- Complete Spanish All-In-One
- Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions
- Advanced Spanish Grammar
See? I wasn’t kidding when I said the series covers just about everything. 🙂
The books are amazingly comprehensive and cover their respective topic very well. Each one is written by a different author.
In particular, I highly recommend the Spanish Conversation edition which uses authentic dialogue examples to get you speaking better Spanish. Each of the twelve sections begins with a natural dialogue and then goes into some really helpful (and challenging) exercises.
This series is really popular with Spanish learners and it’s not hard to see why.
2. Spanish Short Stories For Beginners – Olly Richards
Okay, so this book doesn’t exactly teach Spanish.
It’s a graded reader aimed at beginner learners of the language and is part of an enormously popular series in the polyglot community (the author also runs a brilliant Spanish course called Spanish Uncovered - see review ).
The whole point is to get you reading material that’s at your level as a new learner – stuff that’s challenging but not too much.
It doesn’t give you the option to look up the English translation either.
You just get vocab lists and exercises. The audio is also available online.
There’s a follow-on edition to this (admittedly I haven’t seen this one but have heard it’s just as good).
I highly recommend the Spanish Short Stories book to you if you’re looking for reading material at a low level.
3. Accelerated Spanish
Timothy Moser’s Accelerated Spanish is quite unique compared to other books in this niche.
His book focuses on using his own personally developed mnemonic technique for remembering Spanish words and grammar.
It’s quite a unique take but his approach works wonders for people.
He gets you recognizing grammar patterns and high-frequency terms in the beginning and gradually you’ll be able to plug in other terms with ease.
You’ll find yourself being able to store images in ‘memory palaces’ with quick recall by using the book’s method.
4. Spanish All-In-One For Dummies
For Dummies? Seriously? 🙂
Yes, this series is very hit-and-miss.
Some books in the ‘Dummies’ series are frankly terrible but the Spanish one is actually very good and one I highly recommend.
While it’s a really comprehensive primer to Spanish, my only gripe with it is a purely aesthetic one – I really don’t like the font and clustered text of the book.
It makes all ‘Dummies’ books unnecessarily hard to read.
Other than that, it’s a brilliant one to add to your bookshelf.
Make sure to get the accompanying audio to get full value out of it.
5. Easy Spanish Step-By-Step
At the time of this writing, Easy Spanish Step-By-Step is an Amazon bestseller.
That’s no surprise to me!
Barbara Bregstein does a wonderful job at covering Spanish grammar comprehensively but in a simple and totally non-intimidating way.
She covers a lot but manages to write very casually so it’s easy to digest.
The book will introduce a topic – let’s say, the subjunctive for example – and give a really short spiel (not too overwhelming on the details) introducing the the topic with a few bullet points, and then get straight into practical examples.
The vocab lists could be better organized but other than that, it’s a terrific resource that you can reference long into your Spanish study.
Consider using Learning With Texts for Spanish (it’s free)
So, Donovan’s written at length on a tool called Learning With Texts (LWT for short).
It’s a free and open source program that you can install on pretty much any computer (see installation instructions for LWT here) with some patience.
For languages like Spanish, it’s an amazing tool for helping you read texts.
It’s called an assisted reader .
If you’re not technically-minded, there is a paid alternative called LingQ which is very similar in function and has a large database of reading material on it.
The basic idea is that you take a Spanish story or article, copy the text into LWT (or LingQ), and then add the audio file if you want to.
Listening to Spanish while reading is definitely more beneficial!
You can then go along and click the words to highlight definitions, get translations, mark how well you know the term, and so on.
I recommend a site like The Fable Cottage for children’s Spanish texts with audio (free).
If you’re into reading and want to use reading material to help your Spanish, then I highly recommend installing LWT and using it as an assisted reader for Spanish content you find online.
Other Spanish resources, courses and alternatives to books
Of course, there are so many great alternative resources for learning Spanish.
You can head over to the Spanish resource page for starters, but if you’re looking for a few quick ideas, here are a couple of great ones:
Earworms Spanish : This is a really unique phrasebook alternative for Spanish.
It uses a scientifically-backed (and very unique) method to help you remember words and phrases by playing it over the top of catchy music. Donovan wrote a review of Earworms before.
It covers both European and Latin American varieties, and is only a couple of bucks.
SpanishPod101 : For the podcast learner.
SpanishPod101 (part of the Innovative series) is one of the most popular platforms for learning Spanish these days.
It has a massive library of lesson content for Spanish learners.
Rocket Spanish : Probably the most comprehensive online course for Spanish covering multiple levels.
Rocket has a very structured, linear format taking you through each lesson from start to finish. For someone brand new to Spanish and an inexperienced language learner, it’s perfect.
More expensive definitely but a lot more overall value and long-term use.
italki : This should be part of every Spanish student’s toolkit.
It eliminates the need to travel to Europe or Latin America. You can book an inexpensive voice or video lesson through italki (many are less than $10 per hour).
Glossika Spanish : This is a very unique platform that teaches Spanish fluency through spaced-repetition of sentences.
Like Earworms, it’s available in both European Spanish and Latin American Spanish.
Any Spanish books or resources I should add here?
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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
Great list! I am using a dictionary by the Cervantes Institute and “A Good Spanish Book!” I think it’s one of the best books to learn Spanish that I have found. Always happy to try new materials!
REPLY TO ERIC
I tried a few different books since my wife and I decided to move to a Spanish-speaking country to be closer to her relatives. So far the best Spanish book I found is ‘A Good Spanish Book!’ by University Academic Editions. Written by a Spanish Professor. Clear explanations and all that, I combine it with online exercises from different websites to practice irregular tenses.
I have an almost complete collection of Practice Makes Perfect. Grammar and Pronouns and Prepositions are good basic books! I am now using sources from this list (since you’re asking what else you can add). I found there a Tandem (a communication app - also not a resource for learning, but for practice), as well as many dictionaries (these are always useful). Thank you for sharing, I will take a look at other books on your list - I really like printed formats with the ability to write and mark something right in the books.
REPLY TO HENRY
Once you get to the intermediate level, “Breaking out of Beginner’s Spanish” by Joseph Keenan is an invaluable resource. This book covers a lot of the cultural context of the language (mostly in a Latin American setting), so you better understand when and when not to use certain phrases and words. It also goes into the deeper means of commonly used words that do not show up in a simple dictionary explanation. It is a great book to help you avoid embarrassing mistakes and to better understand the language in its culture.
REPLY TO ELLIOTT MCFADDEN
Nice list Jada! I used to have Spanish step-by-step in high school, 15 years ago or so. Nowadays my best choice would have to be “A Good Spanish Book!”. It starts from the basics and goes into upper-intermediate levels. I think it’s the best book to learn Spanish right now. I also have the conversation guide by Lonely Planet and it’s also recommendable for a quick trip or so. It’s important to choose books that are written by natives of that language to make sure the contents and cultural approach is updated and relevant. Thanks for the article!
REPLY TO ERICA
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The 9 Best Books for Learning Spanish in 2023
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If you’re hoping to learn Spanish and don’t have time to enroll in lessons, there are many resources out there that can help you, such as audio programs, tutoring services, mobile apps , and podcasts. But the most traditional way of learning a language is by using a book or following a textbook. There are many books that are used all over the world for teaching and learning Spanish, but some are more conducive for self-study than others. Here we have curated a list of books that learners have found useful to successfully teach themselves Spanish. So whether you want to learn Spanish for fun, for work, or travel, if you enjoy the learning from a book, one of the books on this list might be right for you.
Best Overall: Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish: A Creative and Proven Approach
If you want to learn Spanish from scratch and start with a pretty affordable book, Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish might be right for you. It is one of the most popular and well-reviewed books for learning Spanish on your own. Although it has been around for a while, Spanish learners continue to find it very useful. Since it was first published a few decades ago, some thematic concepts might seem outdated, but it is still useful for learning the fundamentals of Spanish. This book is meant for beginner learners. Students enjoy the short grammar explanations and the many practice exercises it includes. Also, the book is advertised as entertaining because it eliminates rote memorization drills, and it is sold at a low price.
Best for Beginners: Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Series
If you’re looking to start with a beginner book and then move on to other more advanced and specific books in a series, the Practice Makes Perfect Spanish Series might be right for you. This series includes a book for Beginner Spanish, Complete Spanish Grammar, Spanish Verb Tenses, Spanish Conversation, Spanish Pronouns and Prepositions, and Complete Spanish All-in-One. The Beginner book contains many exercises as well as an online flashcard app that you can download, and streaming audio that goes along with the book.
Students enjoy the thorough but simple grammar explanations, which are accompanied by several examples and creative practice exercises. Also, you can find the answers to all the exercises, so you can always check your work. The lessons are short so that you don’t have to invest too much time in each one.
Best for Grammar: Complete Spanish Step-by-Step
If you’re looking for a Spanish book that is based on grammar, then Complete Spanish Step-by-Step might appeal to you. As its name indicates, this book teaches you the Spanish grammar step-by-step, but without using boring drills. Instead, the author claims that you will learn the way that people naturally learn a language, starting with the most basic grammar concepts, and advancing step by step.
The book also includes many exercises so you can practice and test your knowledge, lots of vocabulary, as well as many reading passages for practicing reading from the start. Many students enjoy the simple layout and organized structure of the book, as well as its affordable price.
Best for Verb Conjugation: Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs
If you think that the most essential part of learning a language is verb conjugation, then you might enjoy Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs book. As the name indicates, this popular verb book includes the 501 most common and widely used Spanish verbs in 15 tenses and moods. The verbs are presented in alphabetical order, one in each page, with its English translation. The book also includes verbs used in context and in idiomatic phrases and exercises with corresponding answers.
Also, you can find some online bonus material, including many exercises such as listening comprehension, sentence completion, dialogue, word completion, word seek and matching exercises, including answers for all the exercises.
Best for Multimedia: Living Language Spanish
If you enjoy multimedia learning, you should check out the Living Language program. The Living Language program has language-learning materials for several different languages. The Spanish beginner course includes a coursebook, three audio CDs, and online learning material. The book includes 10 lessons with review exercises and dialogues, a glossary, and a grammar summary.
The audio CDs include vocabulary, dialogues, and audio exercises, and the online material includes flashcards, games, and interactive quizzes. The Living Language Method consists of learning essential words and phrases so that you can start communicating from the beginning and slowly build up to more advanced conversations. This method was originally created for the U.S. State Department but is now used by many people who want to learn a foreign language.
Best for Conversation: Spanish for Dummies
If you like the “Dummies” approach to learning something new, the Spanish for Dummies book is a simple, straightforward way to start learning some Spanish. It carries the seal of Berlitz, which is an internationally recognized language instruction organization. Spanish for Dummies is focused on Latin American Spanish, and it covers grammar, verb conjugations, and pronunciation. It also includes a mini dictionary and practice exercises that reinforce the book content. They also try to make it fun by having review exercises that are game-like, instead of just normal fill-in-the-blank exercises. Students have enjoyed using this book to get started with their Spanish, or to prepare for a trip to a Spanish-speaking country.
Best for Self-Teaching: Getting Started with Spanish
If you’re looking for a book that was specifically designed for self-teaching, then this would be a great option. It is meant to be used to learn Spanish at home, using their lessons and MP3 files to listen to native speakers of Spanish, as well as the practice exercises. It also includes an answer key for all the exercise, pronunciation practice, as well as audio commentary for each lesson and exercise recorded by the authors to clarify each concept.
Students enjoy this book because it is simple and clear, and each lesson introduces concepts very gradually and reviews previous lessons, and there are practice exercises to review each new concept. Also, it can be adapted for learners of any age, from homeschooled children to adults wanting to learn Spanish from scratch. If you’re not starting from scratch, then you might want to skip the first few lessons or look for a more advanced book.
Best for Traveling: Lonely Planet Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary
If you are hoping to learn some basic Spanish to be able to get around while traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, then the Lonely Planet Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary might be a good option. With this book, you can learn useful words and phrases for all kinds of travel situations, such as ordering food, shopping, and dealing with emergencies. Also, the book includes basic Spanish information including time, dates, numbers, pronunciation, and grammar rules.
It also includes a 3500-word two-way dictionary, so that you can quickly find any word you might need while you are traveling. Lonely Planet offers versions of this book written specifically for speaking Spanish in Latin America, Mexico, and Spain, so you can purchase the most relevant one for your unique destinations. Also, it is a small enough book that you can carry it around wherever you go.
Best for Cultural Context: Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish
Breaking out of Beginner’s Spanish is a book that can help you improve your Spanish but is also very entertaining. Based on his own experience learning Spanish, the author wrote this book full of tips for English speakers to improve their Spanish. Learners enjoy this book because it contains humor and is fun to read. It includes verb conjugations, pronunciation, grammar, but also some different aspects of the language such as slang, swear words and cultural information from different parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Readers enjoy the clear, practical advice provided by the author. Breaking out of Beginner’s Spanish is best for people who already know some basic Spanish and want to expand their knowledge. Also, it does not contain practice exercises, so if you need written practice, you might need to supplement it with some type of Spanish workbook.
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The 7 Best Books to Learn Spanish in 2023
Books are a great way to learn a language, but what are the best books to learn Spanish ?
There are many ways to learn Spanish, face-to-face classes in a language school , live online classes, mobile apps , distance learning online courses, etc.
Books are another invaluable resource!
If you find the right books, they can provide you with all of the grammar theory you will need as well as give you opportunities to practice what you are learning.
Best books to learn Spanish
In this era of technological advancements, many of us are programmed to pick an app or an online course when we decide to start learning a language.
Books may be a traditional way to learn Spanish, but that doesn’t mean they should be discounted, on the contrary!
Books are one the best ways to learn a language and there are many different types of books to provide all round language learning.
How to choose the best books to learn Spanish
There are a mind-boggling number of books to learn Spanish at home out there to choose from!
So, how can you choose the right book?
Different learners will have different specific preferences depending on what and how they wish to learn so we have compiled a handy list of the 7 best books to learn Spanish !
All of the learning books on this list are first-rate!
You can safely rely on any of these books to help you learn Spanish in a clear and comprehensive manner.
Here are our recommendations of the 7 best Spanish books for learning Spanish, let’s get started!
1. Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish
Best all-round spanish textbook for self-study.
This book was originally published way back in 1953!
It is a gem of a book that has helped so many Spanish learners over the years.
The author is Language Teacher Margarita Madrigal who was born in Costa Rica in 1912 and died in 1983 after writing 25 extremely popular books covering seven languages.
Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish is one of the most popular and best Spanish learning books on Amazon.
The rating is consistently five stars. Andy Warhol even illustrated the cover!
Margarita Madrigal focused her energy on creating a book that made Spanish fun to learn with an emphasis on learning a practical useable language.
Verb conjugations are introduced slowly and Madrigal chose to introduce the past tense first rather than the present tense as is typical with most Spanish textbooks.
Much emphasis is placed upon finding common ground between Spanish and English.
The book shows how many Spanish words are very similar in English and gives the learner confidence by showing them how much they already know before they even start!
Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish is one of the best books to learn Spanish, you can find it here on Amazon .
2. Easy Spanish Step-By-Step
Best spanish workbook with easy-to-follow grammar explanations.
Easy Spanish Step-By-Step is another very popular best-selling Spanish-learning book with thousands of 5-star reviews on Amazon.
The author is Barbara Bregstein who is a Spanish Teacher and Translator from New York.
This is a Spanish grammar book and covers all of the important areas, but this book is very successful in making grammar easily digestible.
Bregstein’s teaching style uses a ‘building block’ approach to language learning whereby the student progresses naturally through grammar, verbs, and vocabulary.
The best part of this book, though, is the opportunity it gives the reader to practice what they have been learning.
Every section has written exercises to test your knowledge, along with interesting reading comprehension exercises to help you build vocabulary and further cement your grammar knowledge.
This is a very effective Spanish textbook for self-study.
Easy Spanish Step-By-Step is the best book to learn Spanish if you like a structured approach to learning.
The book progresses in a logical sequence and builds the student’s skills in a very organized and methodical manner.
Tricky grammar theory is broken down into palatable bites and the learner has lots of chances to see if they have understood!
Order your copy of this fantastic Spanish workbook on Amazon.
3. Easy Spanish Phrase Book
Best book for useful spanish phrases.
Dr. Pablo Garcia Loaeza did a great job compiling this wonderful collection of over 700 handy everyday phrases.
It is one of the best-selling Spanish-English phrasebooks on Amazon and has very few reviews lower than 5 stars.
Phrasebooks like this are not only for holiday-makers looking to get by with a few friendly words in the bar or restaurant!
They are also useful resources to get a better feel for how Spanish speakers really speak.
Spanish students of any level can read through a book such as Pablo Garcia Loaeza’s Easy Spanish Phrase Book and see for themselves how typical sentences are constructed.
Easy Spanish Phrase Book is a small book in size that was clearly built with traveling in mind.
It works very well as a handy reference book, to carry with you as you would your dictionary, and flick through regularly.
There is also a useful pronunciation guide to ensure you know how to pronounce the phrases.
Don’t underestimate the worth of phrasebooks such as this! Very handy tools for learners of any level!!
Grab yourself this handy Spanish phrasebook on Amazon.
More best books to learn Spanish…
4. practice makes perfect: basic spanish, best book to learn spanish for beginner students.
Dorothy Richmond has written five books in this ‘Practice makes perfect’ series and they have helped countless learners get off and running with their Spanish.
This is definitely one of the best books to learn Spanish for beginners!
And another highly effective Spanish textbook for self-study.
The topics within Practice Makes Perfect: Basic Spanish are short and sweet ensuring the new learner doesn’t get bogged down in a mire of complex grammar.
Richmond has clearly carefully planned each of her books to welcome beginner students and ease them through the early stages of learning Spanish.
Students appreciate the clutter-free layout of the book and the interactivity offered by its practice exercises.
The content is excellently prepared and presented so that the student enjoys a comprehensive account of all the key areas of beginner-level Spanish without feeling overwhelmed.
Find this great book for beginner Spanish students on Amazon.
5. Short Stories in Spanish for Beginners
Best spanish book with short stories for beginners.
This book contains a wonderful selection of interesting Spanish short stories for beginners that are designed to be understood by learners who have only been learning Spanish for a short period of time.
The subject matter is realistic and concentrates on using basic vocabulary and sentence structures.
There are instructions at the beginning of the book on how the reader should read each chapter to get the most out of the experience and this is important.
You are encouraged to try and read smoothly through each chapter, aiming to understand the overall meaning rather than translating every single word.
Each chapter is accompanied by a quiz to see what the reader has managed to understand and you will be amazed at how much you do understand.
This book to learn Spanish is cleverly geared towards building the student’s confidence by distracting you from the learning process and helping you to immerse yourself in Spanish text.
This book of Spanish stories is available here on Amazon.
6. Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs
Best spanish textbook to learn spanish verbs and verb conjugations.
Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs is a handy collection of the most useful Spanish verbs with all of their different conjugations.
The verbs are presented in alphabetical order, with one verb, its conjugations, and usage examples, per page.
There are also lists of idioms, antonyms, and synonyms, and concise summaries for easy reference.
This is recommended as one of the best books to learn Spanish available and the textbook you need if you want to learn Spanish verbs.
Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs has been a trusted Spanish learning resource for many years and has thousands of glowing reviews on Amazon.
It is up to its ninth edition now and weighs in at a whopping 704 pages!
There is now also additional downloadable audio content available that gives the learner the opportunity to apply their Spanish grammar knowledge in a variety of situations.
Exercises include sentence completion and listening comprehension.
Buy this Spanish textbook here on Amazon.
7. Learn Spanish with Paul Noble for Beginners
Best spanish learning audiobook.
Paul Noble has created various popular Spanish learning audiobooks and this is a collection of his three beginner-level books.
In this collection, you enjoy over thirteen hours of guided audio learning and it is one of the most popular audiobooks on Amazon with 5 stars.
This is definitely a fun way to learn Spanish. There are no grammar tests, drills, or tests.
There is a downloadable reference booklet, but the idea is to sit back, relax, and listen to this Spanish learning audiobook.
Paul Noble’s teaching approach is calm and encouraging.
He will teach you how to construct useful sentences and help you build your vocabulary repertoire through repetition and immersion in practical everyday scenarios.
Learn Spanish with Paul Noble for Beginners is available here on Amazon .
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Books to Read While Learning Spanish
Working on your Spanish and looking for Spanish books to read that are on your level? If you’re a young adult who has just started to learn Spanish, chances are you aren’t going to want to read a Spanish children’s book. In today’s day and age, thousands of books are easily accessible for you to expand your language. By reading in Spanish, you will improve one of the most important aspects of learning a new language.
If you enjoy improving your Spanish through art and media, don’t forget to check out our article about Spanish TV series and movies when learning Spanish! Additionally, check out our comprehensive guide to Learn Spanish in Madrid ! In this guide we highlight Madrid’s top language schools , Languages exchanges , and other diverse ways to learn Spanish in the big city!
Books for Beginner Readers (A1-A2)
Papelucho by marcela paz.
This fictional book is written from the perspective of a young boy, Papelucho, who lives in Chile. Papelucho goes on various different adventures around his home in Chile and writes about them in his journal. This book is written as his journal, making it very easy for beginners learning Spanish to read. Although this book is directed to young teenagers, those who have read Papelucho say that a reader of any age can relate to the stories of his adventures. There are 12 books in this series overall, so it will keep you busy as you move forward in your language skills
Short Stories in Spanish (for Beginners) by Olly Richards
Short stories are perfect for beginners because they give you a natural place to take a break. You can focus on one storyline at a time and ensure you’ve grasped the entire thing before moving on to a new one. That’t why we recommend this great book of short stories! This book is not only filled with 8 short, easily digestible stories, but the book was made specifically for beginners who are reading in Spanish for the first time! With checkpoints for the reader to use as they improve their Spanish comprehension, this book is a perfect choice.
El Principito by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This classic and precious story follow a young boy (the little prince) as he travels far and wide, commenting on what life must be like as an adult from his young perspective. In truth this is a child’s book, which makes the language, sentence structure and length easy for beginner readers. However, the deep and humourous context of the story is what has allowed the story to be translated from its original French into over 250 languages.
La Vida Imaginaria by Mara Torres
This book follows the main character, Nata, after her boyfriend over many years leaves her. As she moves through life she figures out how to deal with being on her own. This book moves through an nontraditional time line, as it doesn’t have a typical beginning, middle, and end. Rather it talks about various moments in Nata’s life. If you’re a beginner in Spanish, but moving towards intermediate, then this book would be perfect for you. The grammar and vocabulary that is used throughout the book isn’t too hard to follow. And remember, you can always use Google translate if you’re in doubt.
Spanish Books for Intermediate Readers (B1-B2)
Short stories in spanish (for intermediates) by olly richards.
This is the second of volume of Olly Richards popular short story collection. This time the stories are catered for intermediate readers who are ready for the next step in their reading comprehension. Just like with the first volume, this book guides readers through their reading journey, so they are not only reading increidble stories, but learning Spanish tips along the way.
Como Agua para Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
This book is perfect for those who have mastered the basics of Spanish and are ready to move onto a more advanced level. This book is a Spanish classic and follows the main character, Tita. Tita is in love with the man her sister is about to marry. However, she cannot do anything about it because its her duty, as the youngest sibling, to stay and take care of her mother as she becomes older. At the beginning of each chapter is a recipe of a Meixcan dish, so not only will you improve your Spanish reading skills, you may pick up the recipe for a tasty dinner as well.
El Entenado by Juan José Saer
This book follows young boy on his grand avdenture as he travels with a Spanish exploration group across the Atlantic, discovering new frontiers, meeting new civilizations and escaping from perilous situations. The story is adventurous, but it also tackles topics like being a foreigner discovering a new place, missing home and the art of exploring new places – which is perfect for those who happen to be moving abroad!
El Camino by Miguel Delibes
This classic book is centered around a young boy who decides to leave his small village so he can study in a larger city and have a bigger than his parents. The story follows his route and the series of adventures that he encounters along the way. This story is great because it’s small and self contained, while also allowing the reader to learn more about post-war Spain and its smaller corners.
Spanish Books for Advanced Readers (C1-C2)
Nada by carmen laforet.
This classical Spanish nove l has won several awards since its publication in 1944. This story is also for history lovers, as it centers around Spain after the Civil War ended. Many people were left in poverty or without jobs after the war ended. The protagonist of the story, Andrea, moves to Barcelona after the war to move in with her grandmother. The house is left in poor condition, which is very upsetting to Andrea. This book follows as she grows up and deals with the hardships of life. You’ll find this novel to be perfect for you if you are on the border between intermediate and advanced.
Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez
This story follows the Buendia family who lives in Columbia. The patriarch of the family founded the town of Macondo in Colombia (fictitious town). Several misfortunes plague the town, and the plot follows the subsequent generations of the family that live here. This book has been published in over 37 languages, however, to practice your Spanish, read it in its original form. This book follows a large family, so it contains family trees so the reader can follow along, helping the reader to keep track of what’s going on in the story. Today, this book is known as one of the most significant books in Spanish literature.
El tiempo Entre Costuras by Maria Duenas
This book is one for history lovers with an advanced grasp on the Spanish language. In 1936, a young apprentice dressmaker, Sira, flees Spain for what she believes to be her love. The relationship doesn’t work out and she’s left alone to fend for herself in one of the most dangerous time periods in history for a Spaniard, the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Follow Sira on her journey, learn about Spanish history, and improve your Spanish all at once by reading this novel.
The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems by Pablo Neruda
This list would not be complete with another collection of short stories – or in this case a collection of poem! Neruda is a Chilean Nobel Prize winning poet and this selection of his best works are perfect for those who want to test not only their Spanish comprehention – but who want to learn new vocabulary and concepts.
Books You’ve Read Before
Instead of reading one of the above mentioned books, try reading a book you’ve already read before, but translated into Spanish! That way, you won’t be focusing too hard on the plot line and smaller details in the book, but rather on the words and understanding the story as it’s written in Spanish. Start off with a smaller, less complicated book that you’ve read recently and purchase the Spanish version either online or at a Spanish bookstore. This can be a great way to improve your overall Spanish reading skills.
Push Your Skills to the Limit (Profeciency)
Don quijote de la mancha by miguel de cervantes.
Don Quijote is one of Spain’s most famous wiriters, and author to some of the most acclaimed Spanish books out there. This layered story follows the main character, Don Quijote, who wishes to become a knight. When it was written, it was meant to be a satire of the typical knight story. However, over time, this story has become one of the most popular novels of all time. There are two different volumes of this book, published 10 years apart. Since this story is so complex and the language used is difficult for either a beginner or intermediate to understand, its recommended for advanced speakers. If you want to put your Spanish to the true test, then read this book in its “Castellano antigua” or Old Spanish. However, there are adaptations and simplified versions of this book, so a reader of any level can give it a try.
More Articles About Spanish Books & Film:
Citylife’s Must-Watch List for Spanish Movies & Series!
The Reality Show Avalanche Hits Spain!
Beginner’s Guide Madrid’s Movie Theatres
Leah has been living in and exploring Madrid since 2013 when she moved to the city for a simple summer abroad. She started the Citylife Blog in 2014 with the goal to share everything there is to know about her favourite place on earth!
2 Comments . Leave new
I like the book: La dama de blanco y los niños de la escarcha. It was a great read, not hard to follow and not too long.
Great article! I also like the book Abcalia: El viaje de los sueños. It appears in all the rankings and lists with the best novels to learn Spanish.
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Language » Books for Learning Languages
The best books for learning spanish, recommended by benny lewis.
Language Hacking Spanish: A Conversation Course for Beginners by Benny Lewis
Which are the best books for learning Spanish? Benny Lewis , polyglot and author of the popular language-learning blog Fluent in Three Months, recommends his top five. He explains why beginners should be wary of grammar, and why forcing yourself to make mistakes is the key to success in any language.
Interview by Cal Flyn , Deputy Editor
Complete Spanish: A Teach Yourself Program by Juan Kattan-Ibarra
Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text ed. John L King
Short Stories in Spanish for Beginners by Olly Richards
Mastering Spanish Vocabulary by Axel J Navarro Ramil & Jose Maria Navarro
Lonely Planet Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary by Cristina Hernandez Montero & Marta Lopez
1 Complete Spanish: A Teach Yourself Program by Juan Kattan-Ibarra
2 short stories in spanish: new penguin parallel text ed. john l king, 3 short stories in spanish for beginners by olly richards, 4 mastering spanish vocabulary by axel j navarro ramil & jose maria navarro, 5 lonely planet spanish phrasebook & dictionary by cristina hernandez montero & marta lopez.
Today we’re going to talk about the best books for people who are learning Spanish. But before we start, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about what it takes. Can we really teach ourselves to speak a new language?
Absolutely. I always like to preface any discussion by saying that I came from a background of ‘not being good at languages.’ There’s a myth that a lot of people have embraced, where you’re either good at technical stuff or you’re good at the arts and languages, and I very much believed that myself. I am an electronic engineer by trade, and consider myself more of a technical person: good at science, and mathematics, and so on. But part of the problem is this self-fulfilling prophecy; people will look for evidence as to why they’re not good at languages.
I got myself out of that mindset , by embracing mistakes. If anyone takes anything from my advice, the biggest thing I would say is that they have to get out there and make mistakes in whatever language they’re learning, be it Spanish or anything else.
In my case, I moved to Spain. I thought that that would solve my problems. But it didn’t—I lived six entire months in Valencia, and didn’t learn any Spanish, because all my friends were English speakers. This is a mistake a lot of people make. They go to the country, and have a good time, but they have a good time with people who speak English. What made a difference was when I finally thought to myself, ‘I need to start consistently speaking Spanish.’
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At that point my Spanish was absolutely miserable. Completely grammatically incorrect. I didn’t know any of the words that I needed to know. When I wanted to get an electric toothbrush fixed, I had to say, ‘tooth machine not good, won’t go!’ But saying that in Spanish worked. I was able to get a refund. I didn’t even know the word for ‘refund.’ I just said, ‘to and fro, to and fro, money to and fro,’ and it worked.
This is the biggest thing by far. You have to get out of the academic mindset in which you need to get your grammar perfect, you need to use exactly the right words, you need to sound sophisticated—and until you’re at that point, you’re not worthy of actually speaking the language. You need to embrace sounding like a Tarzan version of a Spanish speaker.
Ha! So, to begin with, take a creative approach, concentrating on communicating-by-any-means rather being too focused on what’s right.
As part of your Fluent in Three Months project, you’ve learned a lot of different languages. What do you think is difficult about Spanish, and what’s easy?
It’s funny, because whenever people ask me what the hardest language I’ve learnt was, I tend to say it was Spanish, but not for the reasons people might think. I’ve dabbled in Hungarian, and in Mandarin, and even in the Quechua language that the Incas used to speak. But the reason Spanish was the hardest for me was because it was the first, and learning a language for the first time meant that I was constantly doubting myself.
But in terms of comparing languages from one to another, one of the trickier technical aspects of Spanish would be conjugation. In other European languages you don’t have the same kind of vowel changes. As an example, in Spanish, if I wanted to say the verb ‘to count,’ it’s ‘contar,’ so it sounds a little like the English. But if you wanted to say ‘I count,’ it’s ‘cuento’ – that ‘o’ sound changes to a ‘ue’ sound instead and that vowel change can be very confusing. But, ultimately, it follows a rule, and it’s a straightforward rule; essentially, if where that sound would appear is the stressed syllable in a word (it is in ‘cuento’ but isn’t in ‘contar’, since that ends with an ‘r’), then the more complex version of the sound is what you say. It just takes a little bit of practice and a lot of exposure for it to seep into your brain, but this rule then applies to all similar vowel changes that initially seem random. So it follows rules, although it can just feel quite random, and you might think, ‘Why don’t they just say ‘conto’ instead of ‘cuento’ in Spanish?’
There are a lot of these kind of questions you’ll have when you start learning any language. But one thing I like to remind people of is that if you’re coming from English, you’re coming from one of the most illogical languages of the world. Think of the many ways you can pronounce O-U-G-H. I think there are seven or eight different ways.
Yes. ‘Off,’ as in ‘cough.’ ‘Uff,’ as in ‘rough.’ ‘Uh,’ as in ‘borough’ (or ‘oh,’ in American English). ‘Aw,’ as in ‘ought.’ ‘Up,’ as in ‘hiccough’… Those are just off the top of my head.
So there are a lot of spelling and pronunciation inconsistencies in English. Whenever someone says, ‘Spanish is crazy, they do this, they do that,’ I have at least 100 retorts for them, as to why English is crazier.
I could give a list of things that makes Spanish different to English, but it’s better, from a mentality perspective, to just accept that and move forward. And when it comes to the example I just gave, with conjugations, it’s better as a beginner not to worry about that. If you’re talking to a Spaniard and you say ‘yo conto,’ which is not quite correct—kind of like somebody saying, ‘I like-ee’ if they were speaking in English—they know it’s not right, but they know what you mean. With Spanish, you will come across these things that are a little tricky, but it’s fine if you don’t get them at first.
Let’s turn to the books you’re recommending for learning Spanish. Why don’t we start with The Complete Teach Yourself Spanish coursebook, which looks like a good starting point for the beginner language-learner: it’s a workbook with an accompanying CD. Why have you chosen this course in particular?
I’m a big fan of the Teach Yourself series. I have been for a very, very long time, and they ultimately brought me on to teach my own courses with them. So I’m good friends with that publisher now. But long before they ever got in touch with me, I liked that they had a traditional course—what people think of when they’re looking for a language course—something that has exercises, that teaches you some grammar, that has vocabulary lists. I like the process that they use more than other courses, because they don’t try to overload you with grammar, and they try to give you some example conversations. It’s a good balance. I definitely like how Teach Yourself does it.
If someone is learning Spanish using books, how do you suggest they approach this course? Should they be trying to use it every day, little and often, or should they be investing larger chunks of time?
It’s like anything. If you want to improve your skills, you need to be as dedicated as possible.
One thing I would recommend—especially with languages, because languages require you to change how you think in certain ways—is rather than putting in 30 minutes a day, for a year, I would suggest that, for the next three months, you make a few sacrifices. Don’t watch your favourite shows on Netflix, take one less day out of the week to go out with your mates to the pub, and make these sacrifices—not for the rest of your life, but for a short period. Then for those months you put in a few hours a day, if you can.
Say you were going to put 1,000 hours towards learning Spanish. You could spread that out over five years. I’m sure many people would relate to that from doing it in school. I studied German in school, spread those hours out, and in the end I didn’t really have that much to show for it. But when you are doing it consistently, and you keep momentum up, you really do see a difference. So I would recommend people try to do intensive bursts to get themselves started with a language. Do two hours in one session rather than four half-hour sessions, and you’ll get so much better bang for your buck.
That’s interesting. I suppose the issue with learning Spanish using books, and with language learning in general
, is that it’s difficult to keep the momentum, the motivation up over a long enough period to see the benefit.
Yes. And it is hard to feel that benefit at the initial stages. When we think of speaking a language, we use our native language as a basis of comparison. So we think of success as when we’re able to have a certain level of complexity—like, you can talk about your deepest philosophical beliefs. You can reach that stage, and I have reached that stage in several of my languages, but you get there only by embracing the beginner stages.
So: you have to feel a lot of pride in the fact that maybe you did just have a five-minute conversation about what you do on Monday mornings, you know? The other stuff will come. This is why I say I have a goal of making mistakes. I aim to make 200 mistakes a day—that’s kind of part of my philosophy. Then it’s a lot easier to get into your flow, because you’re ticking that box of making mistakes rather than ticking the box of, ‘I’m going to have a debate on the meaning of existence in Spanish.’ That’s not something you really want to be worried about in your first months.
Though I’m thrilled to see that next on your list of books for learning Spanish is a book that could well shed light on that question. This is Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text . This is a collection of short fiction, including work by celebrated Spanish-language authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende—with an English translation presented in parallel.
Yes. So this comes from my philosophy of trying to use the language as quickly as possible, to get a real feel of the language and step back from the grammar side of things. When I was at school and learning, in my case, German, I got over-packed with grammar. It made the language feel a lot less alive. Now, with a book like this, with a parallel text, is that you try to read that text in Spanish first—even one paragraph. You’re not going to understand it all, but the goal isn’t to understand everything, it’s to get as much as you possibly can.
Maybe there are just two words out of a sentence that you are actually understanding. But with that in mind, you’re able to extrapolate and guess: what are they saying? As a beginner, you’re not going to get much out of a book if you’re just guessing, there are just too many gaps there, but you simply look to the other page and see the English equivalent, and that way you get caught up. Now you have so much more context, and you see a bit more about the story, which means that when you read the next paragraph in Spanish, you’re way more likely to understand what’s going on.
“This is an authentic way of using the language in a more sophisticated, adult way”
If you’re working from zero context throughout the book, then it’s going to feel extraordinarily frustrating. But of course, this bilingual text happens to be from interesting stories, stories you might be familiar with already. You will probably be familiar with the authors, and that gives you a sense of reading a real text, not the Teletubbies in Spanish, or something. This is an authentic way of using the language in a more sophisticated, adult way. The English is there for reference, you are not using this as you would read a regular novel at the end of the night. You’re using this specifically to try to get that Spanish out, and the English is there for you as a crutch.
And it’s okay to do that. One of the dumbest ideas I ever had was to try to read El Señor de los Anillos (The Lord of the Rings) with just a dictionary.
It took me two weeks to get to page two, and I didn’t really understand what I was reading, because I had little individual words out of context. Whereas, with reading a bilingual text, you get so much more. You can try to read, see what you do understand, and then when you see the English part, you’ll feel a certain pride, because you’ll think, ‘ah, I did know that word,’ and that gives you a boost. That’s the reason I wanted to recommend this book. You’re essentially able to start reading Spanish on day one, filling in all of the gaps in your understanding, because obviously there are going to be plenty of gaps.
What you were saying earlier about trying to understand things using context reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station . In that, the protagonist is in Madrid for a poetry fellowship, and his Spanish is at a level such that every sentence spools out a new set of possible meanings. A woman confides in him, but he is not sure if her dad died when she was a child, or whether her father’s death made her feel like a child again… that sort of thing. “It was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords.” I loved that description. But maybe it brings us to the next book you’d like to recommend, which is short fiction written wholly in Spanish.
Yes, this is written by a friend of mine, Olly Richards.
This is the man behind the popular blog: I Will Teach You A Language . Why have you put this book on your list of books for learning Spanish?
What I like about this book is that Olly tried to come up with genuine, real world dialogue. Because one issue I have with a lot of course books is that it can feel extremely artificial. I used one audio course that tried to teach me a language using all this business terminology. It was all about ‘my wife and my secretary,’ and at the time I didn’t have a wife, I didn’t have a secretary. It just felt so irrelevant to me that the conversation felt bland.
What Olly did in these books is he really tried to make the conversations realistic in terms of what people are more likely to use as beginners. And then, of course, use those stories as a way of teaching the language. So you have both the context of the realistic, actual Spanish you’re likely to come across, while also getting a bit of hand holding in terms of learning how the language works.
Olly also has a collection of stories aimed at intermediate learners , a book which might offer a useful step up for those who have been learning Spanish for a while. The next book to discuss is Mastering Spanish Vocabulary . This book has 13,000 entries, also comes with audio files. Why did you pick this vocab book in particular for learning Spanish and how much time do you suggest that people spend memorizing new vocabulary?
So a book like this is definitely not the kind of book you want to read start to finish. It is essentially just a list of words. But the power of this book is if you have certain conversations you know that you’re likely to have, then you can flick ahead to that category.
This has been great for me. I used an earlier print of this very book when I first moved to Spain , a few months into my project when, for instance, I needed to find a new flat. Then, I went to the accommodation section, and saw a very simple list of all the words related to what I would need to know in terms of floor space, and how high the rent would be. So: just words like ‘rent,’ and ‘apartment,’ and ‘door,’ and so on. It’s better than a dictionary, because they’re all collected by category, and won’t overwhelm people with the amount of words that they don’t know.
Okay, yes. So you can cram beforehand, when you know in advance that specific scenarios are about to arise.
Based on your background, there are certain words you’re going to need more than others. As an engineer, my first job in Spain was related to engineering. So I needed to know technical words a lot quicker than I needed to know, for instance, the names of countries. On a generic list of vocabulary, you tend to hear what the translation of country names are a lot faster than you would technical words for parts of a computer. That makes sense for the vast majority of people, but your particular case is going to be different to somebody else’s. Each individual needs to learn the vocabulary that’s relevant to them. I needed to learn how to talk about my travels, I needed to learn how to talk about Ireland in particular, I needed to talk about technical things related to my job.
Again, as a beginner, you don’t want to be worrying too much about grammar. It’s fine if you’re choppily saying stuff like: ‘Supermarket, where?’ instead of piecing together a perfect sentence. You can do so much more with more words, and that’s why a book like this can be so helpful.
Got it. This is coming back to your point about communication being top priority. And I assume that the same reasoning feeds into your final choice, the Lonely Planet Phrasebook and Dictionary ?
Yes. Like Olly gives you the conversational language you’re likely to use in many scenarios, this is specifically a collection of pre-made questions that you’re likely to ask, and pre-made answers you’ll hear in response. So it’s not necessarily conversations, but those initial bursts when you want to form a full sentence.
Let’s say, there are certain things that you know you’re going to ask, so rather than say, ‘Bathroom, where?’ you can learn the phrase, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ because that’s something that you ask regularly enough. Instead of learning the grammatical process behind that, you can just take the entire phrase like it’s one chunk of information, and learn that phrase. This phrasebook is essentially a list of all of these phrases that travellers tended to need a lot, and there is a lot of overlap between travel-related phrases and phrases you’re likely to use in other situations—say, if you are learning Spanish to speak to a Spanish-speaking family member.
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People can learn these phrases without needing to understand the complexity of the grammar behind them. Because even if you don’t yet understand the difference between ‘is,’ ‘be,’ and ‘are,’ or whether it’s in the first, second or third person, you can still learn the phrase, ‘Where is the supermarket?’ and say it off the cuff, and be confident it’s a grammatically correct sentence.
Whenever I travel to a country, the first thing I do is pick up one of these phrasebooks, because that way I can just learn full phrases for the absolute essentials. I can say things, I can communicate, I can see what their likely replies are going to be in those scenarios.
Yes, I understand. It’s interesting, because you have a very different take to Harry Mount, who recommended the best books for learning Latin , but I think necessarily so. Spanish is a living language, and most beginner language learners will be focussed on the conversational elements—on comprehension and making themselves understood. But at what stage do you find you need to invest time in learning grammar? Or does that tends to fall into place by itself, with enough practice?
One of the reasons I didn’t recommend books that are grammar-heavy is not necessarily because I am anti-grammar. It’s more the case that I’m presuming that the people who are seeking this kind of advice are beginners, and I highly, highly recommend beginners do not put a lot of time into grammar. With that being said, when you have that momentum in the language and you reach a certain level, an intermediate level where people can talk to you if they’re patient and you can actually have quite a lot of conversations— that ‘s the point where grammar becomes very useful.
And it’s not just useful, then, but interesting. Because here’s the thing: if I gave you a random grammatical explanation about Spanish and you have just started to learn it, it’s got nothing for you to attach it to. It’ll go in one ear, out the other, it’s not interesting.
“I highly, highly recommend beginners do not put a lot of time into grammar”
Whereas if you’ve already learned Spanish for quite a while and can say lot, you just don’t really understand the logic, when I explain a rule, it’s like a light bulb goes off in your head. You’re like, ‘ That ‘s why they say it that way.’ That extra bit of context makes it interesting, and that makes it more fun to learn, because you’re filling in the gaps when you already have a lot of language to fill with.
Getting grammar first is like getting the blueprints of a house when you don’t have any materials to build with, you know? I do like grammar-heavy books, but only as an intermediate learner. At that stage, I have enough enough vocabulary, I have enough practice, I’m able to communicate—I’m just not able to communicate in a sophisticated-sounding way. It’s time to tidy things up. You don’t tidy an empty house, you know?
That makes sense, thanks. Personally, I love grammar. It reminds me of algebra or logic—learning rules and applying them. Very satisfying. But I struggle to recall it later. Probably because, like you say, I’ve been doing it too early in the language-learning process. Finally, what place does everyday conversation, and perhaps more importantly, immersion in a culture play in reaching the highest levels of proficiency?
Well, it really depends on what the goals you have for that language. When people imagine high levels of proficiency, I think they imagine working professionally in the language, which is absolutely great. So, for instance, I have a C2 diploma in Spanish. This is given by the Instituto Cervantes, and is the highest level of mastery that you can get in a language from this institution. So I can work as a professional engineer in Spanish, and that’s great. I had to work very hard and put a lot of effort into that.
But, realistically, at the level I was before that—let’s say the B2 level on the European scale —I was socially equivalent. I could go hang out in the pub with my mates, and talk about everything in Spanish like I would in English. That’s not the mastery level, but that’s actually more than enough for what a lot of people need. Most people don’t need to work as a professional in their new language; they just want to have a social equivalency in the language. That’s why I would tend to have that as an ultimate goal for most people, because maybe, yes, you want to be bilingual, have perfect equivalency, and do everything that you can do in English, but we don’t really need to do everything in a second language that we need to do in English.
“Most people don’t need to work as a professional in their new language; they just want to have a social equivalency”
Sometimes we just need to have an active social life, and that is an absolutely worthy end goal that you can reach realistically in the space of a year—less, if you’re doing it intensively. And this is where I like to go with these languages.
When it comes to attaining a level of mastery, at that stage getting exposure in conversation doesn’t really help you. There’s only a certain point you’ll get to with conversation, it’s not going to help you to refine your edges. In that case, my advice isn’t special. I would just say: ‘You’ve got to study.’ because there’s nothing magical and there’s no shortcuts at this stage. It’s just putting in the hard work of refining those edges.
But you can get to the conversational stage in a lot of fun and interesting ways, and that’s why I like to advise people to have a dynamic learning approach. So: conversational practice as early as possible, and that’ll get you to the conversational stage. If you want to be able to read in Spanish too, you’ve got to change up your methodology and your entire approach. Have more reading incorporated, and maybe do some more academic things. Conversation is great, but that’s not the be all, end all of language learning.
November 20, 2019
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Benny Lewis is an Irish writer and polyglot who is best known for his website Fluent in 3 Months , on which he documents personal attempts to learn languages within short time periods. He is the author of five books, including Language Hacking Spanish , a book aimed at those beginning to learn Spanish.
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