How to Learn Spanish as an Adult, for Anyone Tired of Being the “Gringo” of the Family

Lead Photo: Photo by Getty Images
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There’s a misconception that every Latino is somehow born knowing Spanish by virtue of their origins. Aside from this myth completely discounting those of us who descend from lands where Spanish isn’t the primary tongue — like Brazil, Haiti as well as Garifuna and Indigenous communities — this stereotype is also not based in reality. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, 27% of Latino households do not speak Spanish at home — and that number is rising every year. Even celebrities like Eva Longoria and Jennifer Lopez have revealed that they’ve struggled with their identity after they were told they’re not “Latino enough” because of their lack of Spanish fluency.

But being a Latino who doesn’t speak Spanish is nothing to be ashamed about. At this point, we all know there is so much more to identity than the language one speaks. Still, it can be challenging to identify as Latino and feel isolated from an aspect of your culture that feels so important — especially if you have critical family members that give you a hard time about your Spanish skills or you’re unable to communicate with people you love dearly. But not being able to speak Spanish as an adult shouldn’t deter you from wanting to learn. It’s never too late to acquire a new skill, even if it’s one as daunting as learning an entire language. 

Here are five ways to conquer Spanish, once and for all.


Language-Learning Apps

If you’re a true beginner who doesn’t have a great foundation, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of Spanish-learning options out there. If that’s the case for you, it’s best to start with a program designed to ease you into grammar and vocabulary. Apps like Duolingo, Memrise and Babbel rely on spaced repetition to teach the user memorable, conversational phrases that can be really helpful if you’re ever in a pinch. Plus, apps like these gamify the learning experience, making your next lesson feel almost like an addictive impulse. What better way to test the waters than through free games?


Use Your Commute

If you drive to work every day (like 85.4% of people in the U.S. do), why not turn your car into a moving classroom? Devote the free time to listening to Spanish-language courses, like “Behind the Wheel Spanish” or “Learn in Your Car: Spanish.” These programs teach the basics and bare-bones vocabulary that can give you the learning blocks of a language, which can help you when you’ll eventually need to learn words via context. Linguists agree that one of the best ways to learn another language is through “shadowing” (i.e. listening and repeating).


Spanish-Language Media

Similarly, a great way to learn another tongue is to consume media (e.g. books, podcasts, songs, movies, TV shows and news programs) in the language you’re trying to learn. The key here is to consume media based on the current level you’re at, otherwise it’s easy to become frustrated by your limited skills. If you’re still a beginner, it might not be helpful to jump into complex political commentary and expect to understand everything. If you can’t keep up with the rapid pace of more advanced Spanish-language programs, opt for a simple podcast like “News in Slow Spanish.”


Local Language-Exchange Partner

While studying the nuts and bolts of a language is a necessary first step when learning a new tongue, it’s crucial to speak with native speakers if you want to eventually become fluent. If you feel like you’ve graduated from the consumption phase of your learning journey and you’re ready to actually speak with another human being, signing up to practice with a language-exchange partner could be the perfect next step for you. Websites like Tandem and italki can set you up with a native Spanish-speaker who is looking to learn English (or whatever your native language is). This way, you can get your feet wet in a low-stakes situation.


Move to a Spanish-Speaking Country (Temporarily)

While studying conjugations through apps and learning vocab through Spanish-language media is extremely beneficial, the best way to learn another language is to completely immerse yourself in it. If you want to up your commitment level (and have the time and money for this type of commitment), think about moving to a Spanish-speaking country for a short time. And if you’re not the adventurous type, don’t worry. There are hundreds of Spanish Immersion programs across Latin America that can give you both the structure and guidance to keep you on track. Look into immersion programs like Maximo Nivel and Tico Lingo — these ones are top-rated and beloved by students worldwide.