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Top Tips to Start Learning Spanish As An Expat  

Learning Spanish from Amy Whitney in Puerto Vallarta
Credit: Amy Whitney

If you’re spending any time in Mexico, learning Spanish is always top of mind. But the big question is, “Where do you start?” This article will give you 4 top tips to start learning Spanish as an expat in Mexico.

If you are like most new language learners, you will probably download a Spanish app like Duolingo or do a quick google search for “Beginner Spanish Lessons” or “How to learn Spanish” that brings up a never-ending list of websites, videos, Spanish courses, and a huge list of apps.

After a few months of working diligently on your Duolingo app, you realize that you have learned some new words but when you are out in the real world, you are still unable to handle even the most basic of situations in Spanish. You can’t understand what people are saying and when it’s your time to speak, you completely freeze up.

Which leaves you wondering…”Am I learning Spanish in the right way?”

In this article, I’ll explain the 4 top tips (or mistakes to avoid) to help new. inexperienced language learners get started on the right foot on your journey to learn Spanish!

1. Learn Spanish vocabulary that is relevant and useful.

Fruit market in Mexico
Credit: Amy Whitney

Although learning colors, days of the week, and “general” vocabulary (i.e. man, woman, t-shirt) seems like the natural place to start, this type of vocabulary isn’t generally used in daily interactions.

When we think about the first words we teach our children, they are highly functional and practical to help them explain what they want or need with words (i.e. bottle). It’s not until they are already putting sentences together that they start to learn colors, numbers, and more descriptive words.

Applying this same concept to an adult living abroad in Mexico, your immediate communication needs revolve around the day-to-day activities and interactions you will face in Spanish. Being able to handle situations such as:

  • Ordering in a restaurant (without needing to point)
  • Asking for an item behind the counter
  • Understanding the questions being asked at the grocery store checkout
  • And most importantly, knowing how to respond back.

By finding lessons or a Spanish course that focuses on words and phrases that are practical and relevant, you will have the opportunity to hear and use them constantly in your daily life. Frequent use will help you remember new words faster and move them into your long-term memory so you can continue building on your Spanish foundation.

Learn Spanish that aligns with your needs.

Although there are many excellent courses and teachers out there, you will find the majority of them teach Spanish in a general way. Hence the need to learn a ton of general vocabulary (desk, run, apple, etc.) and to work through the grammar rules in the order they are presented in the textbook.

These courses are great for students who want to learn Spanish as a hobby or for those who need to pass an exam; but ultimately, for those of us living abroad, it makes more sense to invest our time, energy, and memory resources into learning Spanish that will be immediately useful.

The key here is to recognize that you are looking for a specific type of Spanish that will help you become functional in Spanish for everyday life. As you sort through different courses and lesson options, you can check in with yourself to make sure the course content is something you can see yourself using right away, like these phrases.

2. Figure out how you remember best.

Learning Spanish Online in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Credit: Amy Whitney

Being unable to remember words is one of the biggest obstacles for new learners. Most students tell themselves that they have a bad memory, but in the majority of cases, it’s that they have never been taught how to learn vocabulary in an effective way.

Everyone learns in a slightly different way and while you are trying to figure out your “best method”, try to keep your mind open to exploring different strategies to help learn and remember vocabulary more effectively.

Whether you use lists, sticky notes, reviewing audio, apps, games, flashcards, a notebook, or a combination thereof; finding the right tools to help you review frequently will be an essential part of successfully learning Spanish.

Use proven memory techniques…

Most of us were taught to memorize new information by reviewing it or writing it down over and over. Keep in mind, this is only one method of the many ways to learn vocabulary, and it’s not necessarily the most effective.

Our brains love stories! The more creative or bizarre the story is, the easier it is to remember. If you are having a hard time remembering a word, creating a crazy mini-story can be the key to remembering it easily.

Learning Spanish in Mexico
Credit: Amy Whitney

As an example, the word ‘galleta’ in Spanish means cookie and it is pronounced like guy-yet-ah. To remember this, you can use the first syllable “guy”. Take the time to think about what this “guy” looks like and you can also picture him carrying a gigantic cookie.

The second syllable is “yet” but because ‘yet’ is not a very visual word, the word “yeti” might help you to create a more dramatic story in your head. This yeti is named “yeta”. Yeta really likes cookies (like the cookie monster).

Whenever you are trying to remember the word “cookie”, you will instantly see this scene in your mind’s eye with a guy running as fast as he can down the road carrying a gigantic cookie with a “yeti” named “yeta” running after him. This hint “Guy-yeta” will give your memory the help it needs to remember “galleta.”

Although it might take a few minutes to think of an association, this will allow you to store this word in your long-term memory for easy recall. The hints or associations might not always be perfect but they do give you enough information to recall the word when you need it.

3. Create consistency for smooth and steady progress.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it” applies to Spanish as much as it does to exercise. Whether you are a snowbird or a resident of Mexico, the key to making consistent progress is to make it a habit.

If you run on the beach every morning for 3 months while you are in Mexico, then you go back home to sit on your couch, you will lose all of the progress you worked hard to gain. The same thing happens with Spanish.

Just like going out for a 30-minute walk, learning Spanish can be an enjoyable part of your day and should be something you look forward to. Learning something new and being able to go out and use what you just learned is extremely rewarding and motivating.

To be successful and reach a conversational level or beyond means that Spanish is going to be part of your life and one of those things you do regularly. It’s just like a healthy diet, maintaining your fitness level, or any other skill that fades without practice, “If you don’t use it, you lose it”.

And remember, you don’t need to be in Mexico to continue working on your Spanish. Thanks to the internet, you can be connected to a teacher, course, or app from anywhere in the world. It’s only up to you to make the commitment to be consistent to at least maintain your level while you are on longer vacations.

Enjoy the journey…

New learners are excited but they tend to approach language learning like an intense sprint instead of a long, enjoyable hike through the mountains. Having a realistic expectation from the beginning can help you to stay consistent and committed to Spanish for the long haul.

4. Stop waiting for the “perfect time” to learn Spanish.

Time flies when you are having fun in Mexico
Credit: Amy Whitney

Like our previous example with improving your diet or starting to exercise, there isn’t really a “perfect time” to start; you just need to start doing it. Luckily, learning Spanish doesn’t require a major time commitment to get results and with as little as 20-30 minutes a day, you will see steady results, especially if you apply the tips from this article.

Like any new habit, it is best to start slowly and to make sure you have a support system to keep you accountable, motivated, and on track! Tell your friends and family that you are learning Spanish or join a course for the community support of peers and your teacher.

If learning Spanish is a priority for you right now and you are ready to get started on your learning journey, you can check Expat Spanish Lessons and learn more about the Spanish from Zero Course. Our lessons teach the useful and practical Spanish you will need for your life living abroad in Mexico.