How to learn Spanish poco a poco (little by little)

After having written this post, I’m feeling more motivated than ever to conquer Spanish. I want to be proficient, damnit. And I bet you do, too …

Here are my ideas for improving your Spanish little by little (I should note that I “stole” ideas #3 and #4 from this post on The Spain Scoop):

1. Attend intercambios

In Barcelona, you can set up your own intercambios by posting on sites like tusclasesparticulares and loquo, and there are also several group intercambios organized by Meetup. Most intercambios are in the evenings, and I work most evenings, so I can’t attend as many as I’d like, but I’ve been attending a Thursday evening intercambio in El Born. It’s really well-planned, with four people to a table and little timers on the table. We switch between English and Spanish every 10-15 minutes, and there’s no embarrassment or judgment for making mistakes. In fact, everyone there encourages others to try new words, take their time, mess up.


Intercambios often involve meeting at a bar or cafe. Yum.

2. Read a book in Spanish

I’m still plugging away at Maktub by Paulo Coehlo. I can skim it and get the gist, but I’m really trying to pay attention to the form of each word, studying it for which prepositions are used where, how the verbs are conjugated, etc. While I can typically understand the why behind the choices, I’m still worlds away from being able to replicate those things in my own speech. Like, for example, word order. I always say things backwards, and even though there’s more flexibility in Spanish for word order, I want to sound like a local!

Still, reading a book is another no pressure way to learn the language, albeit slowly.


Laboriously translating Maktub.

3. Listen to the podcast, Coffee Break Spanish

This podcast is goofy, and I love it. It’s also free, so that’s great too. Each lesson builds off the last, so it’s not just a case of trying to memorize phrases, but actually learning elements of the language that can be applied in many different situations. Each lesson is about 15-25 minutes, so they’re perfect for listening to on the train or while walking from place to place. If you’ve already got a basic Spanish level, you can skip ahead to whichever lesson you’d like, or jump around based on gaps in your learning.

4. Supplement with language books

I don’t have much time to study from books, but I did pick up Practice Makes Perfect: Complete Spanish Grammar, based on the recommendation in The Spain Scoop blog post linked to above.

I found that, while my vocabulary is growing quickly through daily exposure, I’m still struggling with verb tenses, pronouns and sentence construction. This book is pretty good because it scaffolds instruction and provides a lot of exercises throughout. I’m trying to study from it at least every other day.

5. Hang out with locals

Of course, this is the best way to learn a language, but it’s also the trickiest when you don’t speak the language very well to begin with. I’ve found locals here to be friendly and helpful when it comes to things like giving directions or answering questions, but they’re not exactly jumping at the chance to be my lifelong friend. I think there’s also a perception (for good reason) that lots of foreigners are here temporarily, and so why invest in a friendship that won’t last? On the other hand, with the growing interest in finding work opportunities abroad (not to mention email and social media), there’s maybe more of an interest in developing international connections.

In my experience, making friends here isn’t instantaneous, but it’s starting to happen. I’m glad I got invited to a second Thanksgiving with people from all over, and I’ve met a few people through friends of friends who know someone who lives here.

6. Take a class

I haven’t gone this route since I don’t have the time, but there are plenty of affordable (and intensive) Spanish classes in Barcelona. Oxford House offers a 4-week course that meets for 1.5 hours Monday – Thursday for just 60€. There are tons of other language schools here, too, and I’d recommend asking the schools for email addresses of past or current students so you can ask questions about the quality of the classes.


Perhaps you’ll want to take a class at the University of Barcelona.


All in all, if you’re learning a new language, perseverance is the name of the game. You’ve got to stick with it. In cosmopolitan cities like Barcelona, it’s too easy to get trapped in a little bubble of English. There are enough people here who speak English, and many locals here want to practice their English, so they’ll often initiate the conversation in English if you look like you’re struggling. However, I’ve gotten in the habit of saying, Háblame en español, por favor!; that usually earns a chuckle and a switch to Spanish.

If you’ve got other language learning tips for me, send them my way. 


pics from Thanksgiving in Barcelona

Who’s ready for some food porn?

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve already seen most of these pics, so apologies for the duplicates. I haven’t been taking my nice camera out as much as I’d like; it’s quick iPhone shots or nothing.

On Thursday, Shelby and Dawson came over for Thanksgiving at my apartment.


We enjoyed a spread of ham, cheese, bread, mashed potatoes and salad.


And I successfully made mini pumpkin pies in the toaster oven. (HOLY YUM.)

mini pies

We stuffed ourselves silly, and then somehow found more room in our stomachs for a late night dinner with Dawson’s cousin and his wife, who were visiting from Germany. We went to Paco Meralgo in l’Eixample district and sat at the bar (reservations are required for tables). It’s a place I’ll definitely take other visitors. (The bombas – deep-fried balls of meat and potatoes with a nearly spicy sauce – are a personal favorite.)

Paco Meralgo

Then, on Saturday, my new friend, Jessica, invited me to a Thanksgiving feast at her place. She hosted sixteen people and roasted four (four!) chickens. She also made stuffing, so I was basically in a carb-induced euphoria all night.

roast chicken

I loved the mix of nationalities represented: people from Spain, France, Andorra, Turkey, Italy and the U.S. They were super welcoming of me and switched back and forth between Spanish and English to help translate parts of the conversation that I didn’t catch.

group shot

I didn’t get a very good pic of the group (probably because I was too busy loading up my plate with a third helping of mashed potatoes), but you can visit Jessica’s blog for a better shot.

I did, however, get a pic of the pastel de chocolate that her friend brought for dessert. The girls erupted in a chorus of ¡Qué guay! upon seeing  it.

pastel de chocolate

After dinner (at, ahem, 1:30 am), we went to a club, and you’ll be happy (or shocked) to know that this self-confessed early bird stayed out dancing until nearly 5:00 am. The club played hip hop music on its first floor and a mix of pop and 80’s music on its second, and I pretty much loved every minute of it. (I didn’t love waking up in a foggy stupor at noon today, but I think I’m slowly adjusting to Spanish time.)

I’m learning that the holidays here are a magical time − the lights, the decorations, the parties, the get-togethers − and I’m feeling pretty lucky to be experiencing all of it.

Happy Thanksgiving from Barcelona

Shelby, Dawson and I celebrated Thanksgiving on Thursday with mashed potatoes, three types of ham, cheese, bread, salad and mini pumpkin pies. It definitely felt different than home, but we made do. Tonight, I’m going to a new friend’s place for a second Thanksgiving – and crossing my fingers it includes more pumpkin-flavored goodies, as I’ve already eaten the leftovers of mine.

In honor of Thanksgiving (which fell on the 22nd this year), here are 22 things I’m thankful for (in no particular order):

1. long walks, short runs & park benches
2. new beginnings
3. kind strangers
4. cafe con leche
5. hot showers, a warm bed, cozy sweaters (things that keep me warm)
6. hot showers (again), hand sanitizer, toothpaste (things that keep me clean)
7. books, blogs & Twitter (things that keep my mind – and heart – going)
8. girl friends who support me, send me emails, call me up, check in on my Spanish adventures, collect me from the airport, let me cry, make me laugh (I’m especially looking at you, Shelby, Rachel, Jill, Tracy, Stephanie, Mary, and Emmaline, and there are so many more who have been so kind and wonderful, especially during these last few, up-in-the-air months. Thank you, friends.)
9. yoga
10. chocolate & wine & cold IPA & Jo Malone perfume (things that feel indulgent)
11. generous, patient, forgiving parents
12. perspective
13. wifi
14. music & dancing
15. my memory, selective and flawed though it may be
16. good pens, pretty notebooks
17. second chances
18. plane tickets (especially ones to Paris)
19. my flatmate
20. honesty that doesn’t depend on timing, but just is
21. sunshine
22. acceptance

time warps & loneliness & realizations

When I first arrived in Barcelona, time was at a virtual standstill. I’d been here five days, and it felt like 20. I reached the three-week mark, and it felt like months. It was a barrage of new sights, sounds, tastes – and it was a shock to my system. Some days I’d slip into a reverie; others I’d feel so anxious that I’d tear up for no good reason.

Now, time is just the opposite. I swear to you that I’ll be sitting in a cafe with three hours to plan lessons and I’ll blink and it’ll be time to rush to the metro. Or I’ll meet Shelby in the evening for drinks and we’ll have two beers, and all of a sudden it’s past midnight.

I find myself saying again and again, Where has the time gone? It’s freaky, and more than just the typical wow-time-flies freaky. Here, time doesn’t just fly, it completely schools you and leaves you gaping.

Other things that are schooling me lately:

+ Books and movies by Miranda July. I read her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, a few years ago, but hadn’t revisited anything since. Last week, I came upon her new-ish book of interviews, It Chooses You, when I discovered an awesome bookstore in Barcelona called La Central. (If you’re in BCN, seriously go there. They have a great section of English books, lots of British authors. The books are pricey, but the shop has a cafe so you can grab a stack and spend as much time as you’d like choosing one.) I finished It Chooses You in a sitting, and then immediately watched Miranda July’s movie, You and Me and Everyone We Know, on Netflix when I got home. Oh, and then I had a really good cry and felt lonely and blessed, but also cursed, and unlucky in love, but also grateful, and all those contradictory, maudlin emotions that grip me when I’m alone in the dark and up way past my bedtime. And then, the next morning, I watched The Future, and had the same exact experience. (And then I forced myself to shower and get dressed and get out in the sun and shake. it. off.)

This post on brainpickings about why Joan Didion kept diaries and personal notebooks. The featured quote, especially: “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Man, does that pummel you in the gut the way it does me??

+ This quote by Sandra Cisneros:

Sandra Cisneros

I got all disgustingly nostalgic and wishy washy and, and then, later, beat myself up over it because it felt like steps backward, when I’ve been moving forward in really wonderful ways here.

But, you know how the universe sometimes delivers up exactly what you need at the right time? That came to me in the form of this tweet by Jocelyn Aucoin:


Goddamn, that’s true.

Progress certainly isn’t just forward motion. We loop and loop, and truths become just a bit easier to swallow the second (and third and fourth) time, and there’s nothing quite like getting kicked in the ass right when we’re getting just a bit too cocky.

Digression, how humbling.

(And motivating.) (And infuriating.) (And necessary.)

finding myself in awe of the details

Adjusting to a new home and culture abroad is challenging, mostly in a good way. It’s forced me to be more adaptable than I am at home – and to give up my desire for (warning: approaching buzzword!) control. There are just too many unknown factors here that I simply can’t be in control of my days and my conversations in ways that I’m used to. (Missed the bus? Oh well, there’s another one coming. Have no idea what that dude’s shouting at me? Just smile and wave. Got charged for something I didn’t order, but showed up at the table? Well, better savor that damn food.)

And while that makes me feel a little bristly at times, it also makes me more chill than usual. If I got worked up over every little thing that doesn’t go perfectly right here, I’d  be walking around with a cloud of ugly, dirty bitterness over me. Instead, I’d rather let it go, chalk it up to experience and spend my time focusing on the things that are going really well.

The magic, as always, is in the little details.

Things like spending my mornings writing stories (I’m actually writing fiction again! Holy shit.) and drinking cafe con leche.

Cafe con leche


And running stair repeats near Park Guell.


It’s funny how many people *don’t* take the stairs here. They’ll even take their dogs up the escalators.

And drinking IPAs with Shelby at our favorite bar, La Cerveteca.


One word: Hops.

And happening upon a team of castellers building a “five-story” castell (human tower) in a plaza in my neighborhood.


There was a live band, too, and lots of chanting from the crowd.

Sappy as it may be, I’m lucky as hell to be going through my days here. Barcelona is a pretty good place to dust out the mental cobwebs and get a new perspective on what I want in life – and how to roll when things don’t exactly go my way.

Tell me: What small things are you finding comfort in these days?

oh yeah, I’m here to improve my Spanish

I spoke English all day every day for the month of October while getting my TEFL certification. When the course ended, I expected to be speaking Spanish more regularly, but even now, with the students I’m tutoring, I speak to them primarily in English and only introduce a Spanish word if it’ll help them understand the meaning of difficult vocabulary. (Even then, I can’t do this super well because my Spanish knowledge is limited.)

When I hang out with Shelby, we speak English. When I’m at home, with my Italian flatmate, we speak English. (She keeps encouraging me to speak Spanish with her, but I’m intimidated. She’s fluent in Italian, Spanish (Castellano) and English. She also speaks some Catalan and Portuguese. I’m absurdly jealous.)


Just your average Friday night: translating for fun.

Recently, I’ve been reading a book in Spanish (Maktub by Paulo Coehlo) and laboriously translating it page by page. (Any idea how freakin’ long it takes to read two pages?) It’s actually pretty fun, but I feel like I’m cheating. I’m not really getting out of my comfort zone that way. (For me, speaking is the big hurdle.)

So, a couple nights ago, I forced myself to go to my first intercambio, where Castellano and English speakers switch between the two languages (every 10-15 minutes) for two hours. I sat at a table with a guy from Los Angeles, two women from Spain and a woman from Peru. We started out talking about the difficulty of learning a new language as an adult and how different learner types need different types of exposure to the elements of the language, and then we meandered into issues of politics, adultery, feminism and patriotism. I couldn’t believe I was able to keep up – and somewhat able to successfully express my views. I made a lot of errors in verb tense, I’m sure, and I kept repeating some of the same keywords, but at least I could understand the thread of the conversation, and it helped that we switched back to English every 15 minutes and could clarify where we were at.

It seems like I’ve been at the same Spanish level forever. I teeter on the edge pre-intermediate, and I never advance because I’m too scared to sound like a fool and make mistakes (and it’s been 10 years since I’ve been in a Spanish-speaking country for more than a week or two at a time). I think I’m finally thoroughly motivated to push beyond my current level. (Either that, or I’m just sick of talking about the weather, foods I like, the people in my family and what I do in my free time – since those are the only things you talk about as a basic learner!)

And sounding like a fool is all part of learning, right? So let’s bring on the folly and mistakes and embarrassment.

What about you? How do you learn a new language best? Any apps, sites or books you’d recommend?