How I’m Learning Spanish for Free

I never gave much thought to learning another language. My attempt to take French in high school (and then to pass a translation exam years later in grad school) proved that while I can develop a reasonable reading knowledge easily enough, I have no ear at all.

Then I moved to Colorado and became a public librarian. A lot of the people coming into the library asking for our help? They don’t speak English. So I started working on it in my spare time at work and at home.

Then I successfully lobbied to get my own storytime. At my branch, all our storytimes are bilingual. That’s right, friends, after the equivalent of about two months of high school Spanish, I was reading picture books in English and Spanish.

Also singing. All right, let’s do “Cinco Ratoncitos!” Everyone ready?

Fortunately, I have come a long way since my early storytimes, when I tried to read Donde Viven los Monstruos (that’s Where the Wild Things Are in Spanish) and made a complete ass of myself. I can’t converse in Spanish yet, but I understand a lot more and can pronounce it much more convincingly. I know I can, because Latina moms only laugh when the story is supposed to be funny.

(Yes, Spanish is totally phonetic. But some of those long words trip up an unpracticed tongue. And I can’t roll my Rs.)

Shelling out for Rosetta Stone (though I hear it’s great) or other paid programs was not an option I considered. I’ve been using a variety of freely available and free-to-customers library resources (and only scratching the surface of what’s available).

Free resources–This is one that I use almost every day in ten or twenty minute bursts. Duolingo gives you English and Spanish words, phrases, and sentences to translate. You can use it with or without audio (there is also a microphone option, but I couldn’t get it to work). The no-audio version is nice if you are, for instance, sitting at a public service desk and just want to get a little vocabulary practice in between customers.–This is a dictionary, not a learning tool per se, but I have found it very helpful for pronunciation.  The site offers easy-to-use audio pronunciation, which has been invaluable for me when I come across an unfamiliar dipthong or whatnot. Another nice feature is that you can look up a form of a verb (if you are not sure of the infinitive) and be taken to the right infinitive. And it has easy-to-read conjugation tables.–I use this for verb drills. Being an adult wanting to learn to communicate and not a fifteen-year-old girl studying for a quiz, I wasn’t focusing too much on memorizing verb conjugations. Eventually, though, I felt like I was getting confused by verbs and started spending some time working on them through this excellent site. Click on a kind of verb, it will give you a brief lesson and then make you a short quiz on it. Handy!

Extras en Espanol–This is a faux sitcom with Spanish-speaking characters who talk slowly using small words. Two pretty Spanish roommates are surprised to find out that their pen pal, “Sam from America,” is an awkward but extremely attractive guy. Add their greaser friend Pablo from across the hall and let the hijinks ensue. It’s actually reasonably entertaining. There doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive source for these, but I just Google the episode I want and watch it on YouTube.

Combination Free and Library

Destinos: An Introduction to Spanish–This is entertainingly out of date; it seems to have been made up as a college-level course back in the early 90s. It’s a faux telenovela about an elderly Spanish-Mexican, Don Fernando, who finds out that his first wife, whom he believed dead, may have actually survived the Spanish Civil War and born his child. His brother hires a young female Mexican-American lawyer to investigate. She has awesome shoulder pads. Worth watching for that alone. The way it is designed, you do some preparation, then watch an episode, then do a variety of reading comprehension and vocabulary exercises. (There are no grammar exercises in the hardback textbook; I do not have the Workbook and Study Guide.)

The original video episodes are available for free online here. They won’t, however, make much sense unless you also have the accompanying textbook and preferably also the audio CDs. Happily, I was able to get these from my library. Since they are so old, I can renew them over and over again as no one else has requested them. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m abusing my librarian privilege by overriding the renewal limit. But what’s the fun of being a librarian if you can’t do that sometimes?)

Been carrying this back and forth between work and home, like being back in high school.

Been carrying this back and forth between work and home, like being back in high school.

If your library doesn’t have it, the textbook is currently available in the Amazon Marketplace for forty-seven cents plus shipping. Since this is designed as a college course, it’s pretty time-consuming and where I have been devoting most of my energies. Because I’m a very strong reader but a terrible listener, I’ve been working hard on Spanish listening.

Other Library Resources

Spanish children’s books–Reading picture books in Spanish has been good practice for me. I particularly like bilingual nonfiction; it has straightforward sentence structure and the translation is right there!

Mango–This is an online language learning tool that many libraries make available to their cardholders. I was already doing Duolingo, so I haven’t tried Mango.

eAudiobooks–My library has a selection of eAudiobooks available (and a few CD books). I haven’t used these mostly just because I don’t have an iPod jack in my car. Also, Overdrive resources can be harder to renew than physical books and it’s impervious to my librarian mojo, so I didn’t want to get into something and then lose access to it.

Conversation table–Some library branches have a conversation table for people learning Spanish. I haven’t tried this because I already work two evenings a week; I’m not going to go to a different library at six o’clock on one of my evenings off.

Using free and library resources to learn a language is totally possible. It does requires some flexibility; you won’t have your very own book, but you can switch back and forth between multiple methods.

Have you learned another language? What method did you use?



About frugalparagon

I'm a part-time librarian and mom to two small boys. I blog about striving for the long-term goal of financial independence while running a tight ship at home.

4 responses to “How I’m Learning Spanish for Free”

  1. Autumn says :

    I haven’t actually tried to learn another language since my high school days. French was once of my favorite subjects and I made great grades, but was pretty terrible at the listening and speaking parts. When I had to take the placement test in college the test was halfway through before I realized that the audio didn’t actually match the test booklets and had to start over. I think they just passed everyone in that session.

    So kudos on taking the initiative to learn another language – it’s not easy. Are you doing anything with the kids?

    • frugalparagon says :

      Not yet. Our neighborhood school has Spanish immersion that I am considering (most of the students in it are native Spanish speakers), or there is also a nearby Spanish immersion charter school. They learn a few words of it at school, too.

  2. Amy K says :

    Thank you for writing this! I’ve also been doing DuoLingo but I want to supplement with videos. I’ve found Sesame Street en Espanol, but Extras en Espanol sounds more age appropriate for me 🙂

    • frugalparagon says :

      You’re welcome! Extras is definitely a good start. Your library might also have “book packs”–picture books that come with a CD–in Spanish to build your listening skills.

      I haven’t been doing Duolingo lately–I read this book Fluent Forever, which talks you through how to make your own e-flashcards, and I’ve been doing that instead as making one’s own flashcards means better comprehension. DL is fun, though!

      When you finish Extras, Netflix has a lot of show available with Spanish dubbing, including most or all of their original programming. Interestly, the audio does not match the subtitles as they were evidently translated by different people! i have been watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in Spanish.

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