Lingua Files: my tried and true methods for learning Spanish

People are always asking me how I keep up with my Spanish.

I’ve got to admit that it’s a bit of a challenge (use it or lose it), but I am a firm believer that it can be done through a combination of accountability, goal-setting, and telenovelas (jk about that last one…sort of).

Whether you’re learning Spanish so you can graduate from high school or college, want to communicate more effectively with family, friends, and locals, woo a potential novia/novio, or are just a nerd like me who enjoys spending free time doing this stuff, you are in the right place.


Something to note: this is a working resource page (emphasis on the working) – I’ll be making additions as I come across new materials, as well as adding suggestions from readers. Hit me up with whatever has helped you out and I’ll add those tips to the list. Everyone who contributes will be credited accordingly!

So, without further ado, here are a few ways you can started, dust off that rusty high school Spanish, or keep you current skills sharp. It’s a long post, but full of useful info so please bear with me (you will be glad you did!).


This one is a no brainer. One of the best ways to learn another language is to simultaneously learn about its culture(s), and this includes pop culture!

Since the Spanish speaking world is HUGE, you can always watch old favorites in Spanish. In fact, there are a handful of Hollywood movies that I’ve only seen dubbed en español. However, there are plenty of movies that are originally filmed in Spanish. And, if you don’t understand what’s going on, subtitles will become your new best friend.

Here are a few recommendations to get you started (there are waaaayyy more out there that I didn’t list/still need to watch so hmu with any of those):

Ocho apellidos vascos (Spain): A guy from Andalusia falls for a girl from the Basque Country. If you’ve been to Spain, you might know about the regional differences between the north and south, and this one will have you laughing. Currently available on Netflix for your viewing pleasure!

El orfanato (Spain): Usually I am not a fan of scary movies since I find them super cheesy. There are definitely some cheesy elements in this one, but overall I thought it was pretty good and it sufficiently creeped me out.

Sin nombre (Mexico): This movie provides a different, and often silenced, perspective of the immigrant experience that is unfortunately all too common through telling the stories of two young people and the challenges they face while attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border.

Y tu mama también (Mexico): Two teenage boys and a twenty something year old woman go road tripping together. This is definitely the most sex, drugs and rock and roll one on the list but it also touches upon the political and economic climate in Mexico in the late 90’s. I watched this on a train ride and it kept me interested.

Volver (Spain):  This is one of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s most famous films. Featuring Penelope Cruz, it’s full of family drama, strong female leads, some supernatural elements to spice things up, and bold cinematography. Just watch it.


I’ll be honest here and say that I haven’t read that many books on my own in Spanish outside of class. Maybe with my fancy new kindle I’ll be a bit more motivated? Some libros to check out:

Harry Potter Obviously this one makes the list. If you’re like me and have already read them multiple times in English, why not relive the magic again en español? Plus, if you already know the story, it will be easier to follow and learn new words. You can do this with a lot of the classics, too.


Como agua para chocolate – A book that combine food and a forbidden romance in a Mexican town. Every chapter starts with a recipe that relates to an event in the characters’ lives. I’m currently reading this one and learning plenty of new vocabulary as I go.

La sombra del viento – This has been on my list for a while and it’s an international best-seller, so it’s gotta be good, right? Will report back after reading…

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz A very sad but extremely well written story that provides an interesting insight into the legacy of the Trujillo dictatorship. So unlike the others on this list, this book is not written solely in Spanish, BUT it does contain bits of Dominican Spanish throughout. Perfect introductory read, I think.

Short stories – During my senior year of high school I once attempted reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magnum opus Cien anos de soledad and promptly gave up. Don’t make my mistake – Garcia Marquez also wrote some bomb short stories. See more options for all levels here.

Comics – If you’re not quite ready to dive into a full-fledged Spanish novel, comics are a great alternative. My personal favorite is Mafalda, but there are so many more out there. Check out this site for all the classics in Spanish!


TV Shows/Programas

I’m going to be brutally honest here and say that I am not a huge fan of most of Spanish language programming. I’ve always struggles to find quality shows in Spanish. However, recently Netflix has been releasing some original series in Spanish, which look promising.

Also, #lifehack – if you get the chrome extension “Hola Better Internet” you can use the VPN for another country to access shows from Spanish-speaking countries. Not sure on the legality of that but so far I am virus free.

Here are a few shows that I can vouch for personally:

Narcos: Since it’s about the life of Colombian Pablo Escobar, it is pretty violent, and probably pretty controversial, so if you’re not into that look elsewhere. I’d say about half the show is in Spanish with English subtitles, but you can also watch in Spanish

Velvet: It’s a love story set in 1950’s Madrid and centers around a love story between a seamstress and the wealthy heir of a fashion house. In other words, nothing like Narcos, but the drama has kept me going so far even if it is a bit cheesy and overdone.


Jane the Virgin: Okay, so this show is 90% in English, but it’s great! It’s a satirical telenovela that challenges lots of stereotypes about Latino culture in the U.S. and leading lady Gina Rodriguez is amazing. Jane’s abuela only speaks in Spanish with English subtitles, so at least you’ve got that. (Or you can just watch it in Spanish). Yes, I know it’s from the CW but it’s GOOD. Just take my word for it and watch it.


This is one of my favorite ways to practice Spanish and multitask. Load up your iPod or smartphone and listen while commuting, traveling, or working out. Here are a few to get you started:

Notes in Spanish: This is a conversational podcast that features native speakers discussing current events, travel, and other topics related to Spanish culture. You’ll find something for everyone with levels from beginner to advanced, and the website is also full of resources.

Radio Ambulante: From NPR, it tells stories from all over Latin America. If you like This American Life, this one will be up your alley.

TED Español: There are so many TED talks out there in Spanish about every topic under the sun. If you need a little extra help, you can always watch the video version with subtitles.

Las Noticias/The News

Stay up to date on what’s going on in the Spanish-speaking world by reading the news. It’s also one of the best ways to immerse yourself in aspects of another culture and engage with current events. If you’re about to travel to or live in another country you’ll definitely want to avoid being that clueless gringo.

I tend to alternate between El Pais and CNN Españolbut admit to spend a fair amount of time on Buzzfeed Español and no, I don’t consider buzzfeed serious journalism, but I love a good quiz as much as the next person. If you’re going to waste your time browsing through photos of mutant vegetables or capibaras that look like Rafa Nadal, then why not learn Spanish at the same time? Also, don’t forget to check out the local news source.

Other ways to practice…

Keep a word journal:  Every time you learn a new word, write it down! You can use an actual journal, or just the notes app on your phone. Then commit to using that word in your vocabulary, you will impress all your new friends. This worked really well for me when I studied abroad, especially with more colloquial phrases.

Conversation groups: There is no substitute for full immersion, but conversation groups are probably the next best thing. If you’re still in school, see if your university’s Spanish department offers something like this. To my UMass peeps: check out Cafe Olé run by the Spanish department! If you’re living or studying in a Spanish-speaking country, there are plenty of people who will be willing to do a language exchange. Grab a drink and spend half the time speaking Spanish and the other half English. It’s a win-win.

Online: Honestly, just do a quick google search and you’ll find TONS of resources. If you’re not sure where to start, head over to Duolingo, FluentU, and Lingoda.

Music: With Despacito recently becoming the most streamed music video of all time, how can I end this post without mentioning music? Whether you love that song or hate it, it’s proof that Latin music is here to stay. Not convinced? There is so much more to Spanish music than top 40 hits, so start exploring.


Suggestions? Questions? Need help getting started? Let me know!

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