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Learn to Speak Spanish! (Tips from a Master Teacher)

Spanish Language Learning 101~Tips from a Master Teacher

Hearing me rattle off in near-perfect Spanish comes as a surprise to many and allows for a gentle reminder that a book cannot be judged by its cover. Yes, even we blonde, Dutch-Irish gals can hold our own and then some in one of more beautiful and easy-to-learn romance languages of our world!

Having grown up in the border city of San Diego/Tijuana, earned my degree in Spanish with a Masters in Cross-Cultural Education & Curriculum Development, lived in Spain, and taught K-12 Spanish for twelve years for San Diego City Schools, I indeed have a certain advantage and insight into language acquisition tips that I am happy to share with y’all. 

While waving a magic wand might be the preferred route for garnering a working command of both written and spoken Spanish, I promise you that with some focused studies and uninhibited practice, great dividends will be reaped! 

Wherever you are on the learning continuum–beginner, intermediate, advanced or somewhere in between–I trust that the following 5 Tips will be helpful as you begin your Spanish-language learning adventure:

1. Examine Your Motivations

What are your reasons for wanting to learn Spanish?

Are you internally motivated  to learn Spanish, to connect with the people and to understand the culture?

Are your motivations born from a personal hunger for intellectual stimulation, global connection, and cultural awareness? 

If you are trying to learn Spanish because you “have to” or you “should”, then you likely are not feeling the necessary commitment nor desire to learn.

If your reasons, however, come from a true desire to communicate and connect with a world outside your own, then you are at a great advantage and you will not only learn the language but will also enjoy doing so! 

2. Learn Like a Child

Learn to Speak Spanish! (Tips from a Master Teacher) Pimsleur Language Programs

Pimsleur Language Programs

 Language Learning through Dance!

Music (including nursery rhymes), cartoons, movies with and without subtitles, talk radio, translating billboards and other print media all are very effective ways to supplement your Spanish language learning. Go to the library and check out children’s books, rent movies in Spanish, tune your car radio to a Spanish-speaking channel, listen to Spanish CD’s on your commute to work…all of these different learning modalities add up to the larger picture of your desired fluency. Duolingo is a great option and also free! 

Learn like a child, take it all in, be curious and observant, and most of all, be patient with yourself. Seek out opportunities to practice Spanish and immerse yourself in real-life learning opportunities.

Learning in isolation only—behind a computer screen, nose in a book—-will likely not give you an adequate return on your investment. Balance and variety is the key to engaging all parts of your brain. Get out there and practice, speak, listen and interact with other Spanish speakers. Even if your pronunciation or syntax is not perfect, native speakers will likely feel honored that you are making the effort to communicate with them in their mother tongue. 

 3. Put In The Time, Do The Work

Yes, learning Spanish will require some work, study, practice, repetition, commitment, consistency, and stick-to-itiveness. Find what works for you.

Do you prefer one-on-one instruction, small or large group classes, interactive computer programs, listening CD’sflashcards, textbooks…or a combination of some or all? 

Identify what your learning style is and capitalize on it. If you prefer to spend minimal time in the books, then get out there and start listening to and speaking with people. If you feel more confident with some technical/grammar knowledge first, then obtain that foundational knowledge and then put it to real-life conversational practice. 

Whatever way(s) you learn best, identify it, put in the time and do the work. I promise you, it will be worth it. 

4. Live, Work, Spend an Extended Amount of Time in a Spanish-Speaking Country

This is a given and why immersion programs work so well. Being in a country where Spanish is the native tongue is hands down the number one way to learn. Before I moved to Spain my junior year of college, I was very conversant in Spanish, but it was really only upon being forced to speak the language day in and day out—at the laundromat, at the post office, buying groceries, living a life in Spanish—-that all of the dots connected and before I knew it, I began to dream in Spanish!

Dreaming in the language is a tell-tale sign that your brain is making the connections and entering a stage of increased fluency. (Arguing is too!)

5. Fall in love

...with a person, the culture, the music, the sights, the sounds, the history, the beauty and unique aspects of the ever dynamic Spanish-speaking culture–whether it be in the Caribbean, Central or South America, Mexico, Spain or Morocco. If your fire and desire for language acquisition and cultural understanding come from within, the learning will occur.

Learn to Speak Spanish! (Tips from a Master Teacher)

Teacher of The Year, Mt. Everest Academy

Language is primal, essential and fundamental to the human experience. It provides a platform through which we can connect, understand, love, play, and adventure–where doors of opportunity are opened and connections are made.

Learning how to communicate and express yourself in another language is a skill you will never regret and one that can only add value to your life.

If you have any questions or comments about this article and your experience (frustrations, challenges, success) with learning Spanish, please feel free to share them in the comments section below and I will get back to you muy pronto!

I wish you the best of luck on your Spanish learning journey!

Cheers y Saludos,




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About the author: Together with my Retired Firefighter Husband and our now 19-year-old twins who were just 8 when we immigrated to Mexico in 2012, we have created a joyful life of design and freedom South of The Border. Welcome to Los O’Gradys in Mexico! Saludos, Katie 🇲🇽 ☘️

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • MONNICA O'GRADY November 5, 2014, 12:44 pm

    Thanks, dear Katie. I realize after reading your teachings that I do not have the bandwidth to learn Spanish! Dang…I just want the magic wand. But, I think you are right…. So glad you are sharing the wisdom
    love you

    • Katie O'Grady November 5, 2014, 8:43 pm

      I get it Sista Monnica!
      I don’t have the bandwith to teach your niece and nephew 5th grade math! Can you come help, please?
      Love you!

  • Anna Yager November 11, 2014, 10:10 am

    Katie – Glad you did a post on this. It’s a continuing source of sadness to me that the English speakers of our town basically feel that it’s too hard to learn spanish, which keeps them in their own English-speaking ghetto rather than being integrated into the existing town, and perpetuates the “them vs. us” perspective. Of course, learning another language in one’s later years is one of the best things you can do to keep your mind active and stave off dementia. Ah well.

    • Katie O'Grady November 11, 2014, 2:03 pm


      I feel it the responsibility of the visitor, especially full time residents, to learn the local language… it is a sign of respect and an attempt to integrate.

      It is doable….just takes a little ganas!




  • Deb Kreutz December 2, 2014, 8:50 am

    Dear Katie,
    I love what you have shared, particularly about learning spanish. I have also found that teaching/tutoring English in Mexico has been a delightful way to expand and improve my Spanish. I have always felt that I learn from the students almost as much as I teach. I also found that several of the English language schools in SMA welcome native speakers of English particulary as it provides their spanish speaking students an opportinity to hear different accents and slang.
    My husband and I have been living in SMA also, although them cold winters (which you described beautifully in your piece about St, Martin’s day) led us to spend this winter in BCS, where the spanish is a bit different.
    Anyway, back to SMA in May. Thank you for sharing your experiences! Maybe I’ll see you in the Jardin one day.

    • Katie O'Grady December 31, 2015, 8:19 am

      Hi Deb!

      I don’t know how this comment snuck by me!

      My apologies for not responding until now.

      Funny you should share that teaching/tutoring English helps to improve your Spanish! I always felt the same way about teaching Spanish to middle schoolers in the States! Breaking down grammar concepts in English first was a good bridge for them to “get it” in Spanish, and along the way, I learned a lot too, ha!

      Are you currently in Baja? Such a beautiful place! We have many fond memories from years in Bahia de Los Angeles.

      Hope this finds you enjoying your Holidays and a Happy New Year to you!


      Katie 🙂

  • mikel April 21, 2016, 5:10 pm

    Well said, Katie! I am always amazed when expats here in Mexico brag that they’ve never had to learn Spanish, because they’re missing soooo much culture interaction with the Mexican community.

    • Katie O'Grady April 21, 2016, 5:13 pm

      Thank you Mikel!

      I couldn’t agree more.

      Besides, it is a sign of respect and gratitude to speak the language of the country….just sayin’ 😉

  • Kaye Richardson May 1, 2016, 2:56 pm

    Great advice, Katie! Larry and I have been working on learning Spanish for a little over a year now. While we can communicate enough to get basic needs met (just barely!), we still aren’t able to have an actual conversation. And of course, we’ve had some rather humorous failures! Like the time just before we left SMA when we went to buy the big rocket shaped bouncy balloons from a lady in the jardín to bring home to the grandkids and I kept saying we needed them to be “plato”! She smiled graciously and gave us the balloons flat. I meant to say plano, but I don’t even know if that is the appropriate word.
    We were in Guanajuato before we went to SMA, and we had to use Spanish a whole lot more because far fewer people speak English there. We got lazy when we got to SMA because so many people speak far better English than we speak Spanish.

    • Katie O'Grady May 1, 2016, 3:33 pm

      Hi Kaye,
      Thanks for sharing!
      I got a laugh out of your “plato” story…good thing the balloon lady figured it out! 🙂
      And yes, plano works or “sin aire” too….
      Hope you are enjoying those beautiful grandbabies.

      • Kaye May 1, 2016, 3:58 pm

        Sin aire! Didn’t think of that! So many more words are in my reading vocabulary than in my speaking vocabulary! Will keep working at it and will use some of your suggestions as well!

        • Katie O'Grady May 1, 2016, 4:12 pm

          Yes, totally normal…just keep practicing and immersing yourself as much as possible!
          Best and please do keep in touch.
          Katie 🙂

  • Anslyn May 1, 2016, 3:18 pm

    Thanks Katie, helpful advice!

    • Katie O'Grady May 1, 2016, 3:30 pm

      You are welcome Anslyn!
      Hope yours is coming along nicely there in Beautiful Baja! 😉

  • Dean May 6, 2016, 7:43 am

    Thank you for this helpful post! Being a senior, and one who wears hearing aids and depends on lip reading to help hear…learning Spanish will be difficult. Not impossible of course, I am determined to make it a life-long endeavor – however when you don’t speak a language of course you can’t lip-read to help understand. Too, even when people are speaking English if they have an accent it’s more difficult for hearing impaired folks to understand. Add any background noise (hello Mexico!) and it adds to the difficulty. As I said – determination will win the day! Thank you again for your post (all of them!).

    • Katie O'Grady May 6, 2016, 5:20 pm

      Greetings Dean,
      Thank you so much for sharing this perspective.
      I admire your determination to learn!
      Please do keep in touch and let me know how it goes.
      Katie 🙂

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