Spanish Learning Tools – How To Learn To Speak Spanish!

Learning and speaking Spanish

Mark checks his homework before class.

April 30, 2013 – One of the most fulfilling aspects of cruising Mexico, for us, has been the crazy roller coaster ride of learning to communicate in Spanish. We’re not super competent at it, but it is so much fun trying.

Our mistakes are always great for a few laughs, too. One time, while the Mexican Navy was doing a routine inspection of our boat at sea, I happily rattled off the answers to the Navy officer’s many questions in Spanish.

When he asked how big the engine was, I chirped “54 caballeros,” quite proud that I knew the correct word for 54. Seeing him smirk at me over his glasses, I wondered what I’d said wrong. Then I suddenly remembered that “horsepower” is “caballos” (horses), not “caballeros” (gentlemen). Oops!

Before we started our RV travels in 2007, I had a hunch we might someday buy a boat and go cruising in Mexico, so I took a year and a half of conversational Spanish at the local community college. For anyone planning to cruise, travel by RV or live in Mexico (or any other Spanish speaking country), I can’t recommend highly enough that you enroll in a community college Spanish class right away, even if your departure date is years away! The more semesters of Spanish you have under your belt before you take off on your voyage, the better off you will be once you get here. I had three semesters. I sure wish I’d had six.

What I loved about my class was that everyone in it had a deeply vested interest in learning Spanish. Our class was full of nurses, hospital administrators, cops, lawyers, construction foremen, and people married to native Spanish speakers who wanted to get along with their in-laws. We all progressed through the semesters together, and we had a blast!

It was quite a challenge, however, to take all that good class knowledge and apply it in the streets of Mexico once we started cruising, especially living in a community of English-speaking cruisers. When we first got to Mexico, I was very surprised at how much Spanish I didn’t know. However, by constantly asking directions, asking vendors for mechanical parts for the boat, and generally bumbling along, I slowly improved.

Spanish Learning Tools

There are several tools that have been helping me bridge the gap between in-class Spanish and on-the-street lingo. One of my favorites is Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish by Joseph Keenan. It is hilarious and is chock full of phrases, concepts and goodies that are glossed over by traditional text books.

Besides being very amusing and easy to read, it gives lots of colloquial phrases.  So when “Really?” or “No way!” or “Imagine that!” is on the tip of your tongue, you can come up with the equivalent Spanish phrase.  It also discusses the most common verbs and adjectives in great detail, explaining the nuances implied by using the words in certain contexts.

Another excellent book to help cement all that grammar and vocabulary in memory is Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish by Margarita Madrigal. This book works extensively with the most common verbs and adjectives as well, but breaks it all down in bite size pieces and focuses on the forms you are most likely to use on a daily basis.

Whereas Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish is a book you can sit back and read page after page, laughing the whole time while picking up little jewels along the way, Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish is a book I like to grab for five minutes at a time, flipping to a random page and diving in. Both are awesome, and I’m glad to have each one on my bookshelf.

Spanish Reference Tools (Google Translate) is terrific for translating phrases and words. This is really helpful if you get a message from TelCel about the status of your USB modem account and have no idea what it says. Cut and paste the message into Google Translate, and you can get the gist of what the message is all about.

Once I started making friends here in Mexico, I suddenly started connecting with them the modern way – via email and Facebook (they call it “Face”). Yikes! What a shock to start reading emails and FB comments filled with slang and colloquialisms, all written in the modern “texting” form of Spanish where “que” is shortened to “k” and punctuation is skipped all together! I guess English isn’t the only language undergoing major changes with “u” “ur” and other bizarre abbreviations taking over the written word and making the literary greats of yesteryear turn over in their graves.

Google Translate doesn’t work for translating friends’ email messages and FB comments. For those I find I turn to the following websites and my own imagination. is a Spanish-English dictionary and an excellent word translation tool. Type in your word in either English or Spanish and hit enter, and you’ll get pages of information. That’s what I love about it. Rather than giving you a one word translation, it goes on and on, showing how the word works in different phrases, and analyzing it from every angle. will conjugate any Spanish verb into every person in all the tenses. I use this all the time when writing emails.

When we first got to Mexico, I always carried an electronic Spanish English Dictionary with me whenever we went out on the town. It was especially helpful in the super market where the packaged food ingredients lists were unintelligible because the words for most basic ingredients are not at all similar between Spanish and English. More than one cruiser has lamented buying a container of plain yoghurt only to find out later it was sour cream!

Back on the boat we also have a traditional Spanish-English Dictionary (book). For those of us who grew up in the era of one telephone per family, sometimes it’s just easier to grab a book and rifle through it…

We have also used our Spanish for Cruisers book quite a bit, as it gives the words for all the parts on the boat, from “proa” to “popa” (bow to stern).

Immersion Spanish Classes

Almost every city has immersion Spanish classes available. Just ask around or hop online. We both took a week of Spanish classes at Instituto Jovel in the historic Spanish Colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas. For $100 USD per person for the week, we each had three hours of tutorial instruction a day (we each had two different teachers for an hour and a half apiece with a break in between). We also had an hour or two of homework every night. We both learned a tremendous amount, and it bumped our Spanish skills up a notch.

For me, just conversing one-on-one in Spanish for three hours a day made a huge difference in my ability to think on my feet and spit the words out. For Mark, learning the basic grammatical constructs helped give his sizable vocabulary some glue. However, even he — who took one look at the desk-chairs in my community college Spanish 101 class and said “no way” and walked out — now wishes he had braved some conversational classes before we started cruising Mexico.

Adding a home-stay to our week of classes in San Cristóbal would have made it true “immersion,” but we enjoyed doing our homework in the comfort of a hotel. The experience was intense enough as it was. Some folks do two, three, four weeks or more, but we found our brains were mush by the end of Day 5!

Another excellent immersion Spanish school is in the gorgeous city of Guanajuato — a city that no cruiser should miss. Escuela Mexicana is set up much like the school we attended in San Cristobal, and all the students we talked to there said they loved their experience. The only caveat we would have is that if you choose to attend this school, don’t stay in the hotel they recommend, because all your classmates will be there too, and you will end up speaking English together. We heard this from every student we conversed with there.

Lots of folks like Rosetta Stone and other audio courses on tape and online. These are probably great for supplemental learning, but I think the most effective (and realistic) method is to talk to and listen to a live instructor whose mission is to teach you.

Getting out and Practicing!

I was shy to try to speak in Spanish at first, but Mark was so bold with the few words he knew that I quickly jumped in too.  I knew I was making progress when the folks I talked to stopped switching into English as soon as I opened my mouth. Wow! They understood what I said. Once in a while I even understood their reply! After a year of cruising, when I carried on a conversation with a hair stylist throughout my haircut, I felt totally triumphant.

Now, I take advantage of long cab rides to engage the cabbie in conversation. A 20-minute cab ride can turn into a great Spanish lesson that makes the cab fare a bargain. Street vendors enjoy shooting the breeze with passersby, so we try to do it in Spanish. The silver tongued timeshare tour salesmen love to talk, and are happy to chat up a storm.  Get them to do it in Spanish!!!

What do we talk about? We compare notes on where we’re from, where we’re going, where we grew up, our families, what the best things are to see around town, what we’ve all done for work, and on and on. Many folks we meet have lived north of the border for a while, and we enjoy sharing our thoughts about places we know in common. These aren’t earth shattering conversations, but they tune our ears and help us get the words flowing out of our mouths.  And it’s fun!

Keep a Notebook

We ask people all the time, “¿Como se dice…?” to find out how to say something in Spanish.  But by the time we get back to the boat we’ve forgotten all those golden nuggets we learned.  Jotting down these words and phrases we hear in a notebook is really helpful.  (Remembering to BRING that notebook is another story…!!)

I hope you find these ideas and tools as useful as we have… buena suerte (good luck) !!

For a recap, here are what all these goodies look like:

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Wondering what else there is to help you learn Spanish? Maybe it’s here:

More Tips for Cruising Mexico