Learning a New Language

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Last week I achieved a 600-day streak on Duolingo. I started the Spanish course almost a year before our trip to Spain to help me prepare for the experience. With that milestone fading into the rear-view window, I thought I’d put together a post about my experience trying to learn Spanish.

First, my experience with foreign languages is weak. In middle school, I had a class that was split three-ways between Spanish, German and French, spending about 6 weeks in each. In high school, I took two years of Latin, which in case you didn’t know, is a dead language. But it’s been useful in understanding the roots of the Romance languages, and not altogether a waste.

Audio Courses

We started planning our 3 month trip to Spain a whole year before we went. I immediately checked out a Spanish audio course from my library. Years ago, I had listened to Pimsleur’s Italian Level 1-3 on CDs that I checked out from my local library. I had a good experience but since I didn’t use it much beyond the course, the Italian didn’t really stick.

Now, instead of checking out CDs, I downloaded the audio courses through my library’s Overdrive website. There are 5 levels, each with 30 ½-hour lessons, totaling 75 hours of conversational Spanish in question-and-response format. 

While I could download the courses straight to my phone using the Overdrive app, I chose instead to download the MP3s on Windows using the Overdrive application. I could then load the MP3s on to whatever device I wanted. We loaded them on to multiple devices and all but my youngest child started going through the lessons.

If you search for the courses on your local library’s Overdrive website, you may not immediately see them and may need to recommend them to the library. At the time, my library only had levels 1-3, but I was able to easily recommend levels 4-5, which they nearly immediately purchased and added to their collection. My library has probably purchased about 50% of the titles I’ve recommended.

Here’s an example of the Level 1 of Pimsleur at a random library site. Unless you are logged in to that particular library, it may show as “Unavailable”. Simply use the same ID from the URL or search for the same course on your library’s Overdrive site.

If the library system doesn’t work out, you can always purchase the audio courses. Here’s Pimsleur Spanish, Level 1 via Amazon/Audible.

I completed the course a few days before our trip and I found the memory muscle it created to be very helpful in navigating our way through Spain. I used the Latin American version instead of the Castilian, but the differences weren’t significant enough to prevent me from getting by. Learning Spanish through an audio course isn’t going to make you fluent in a language, but it gives great exposure to the language.


Next step on the language learning train was Duolingo. I’d heard rumblings about Duolingo for a while but had never tried it. The premise is making language learning fun in brief bursts and making it a game.

Duolingo has both a subscription based and ad-supported revenue models. When I first started using it, I found that I could usually time exactly when an ad was going to appear and could click on the “close” icon, shortly before the ad appeared, altogether avoiding the ad. Since then, they’ve fixed that “bug” but it’s still not hard to dismiss the ad shortly after it appears. I generally despise advertising but this is pretty mild. If it gets more invasive, I’ll probably just walk away.

Duolingo can be a bit competitive. It’s crazy how a daily streak can drive people to do crazy things. I’ve had to deal with children that are completely crushed when they realize their 100-day streak was toast because they forgot to do it one day. I’ve had children ask me to help them keep their streak by logging in for them and completing lessons when they were going to be camping for an extended period of time and without internet. How crazy is that?

As for other apps, I’ve tried Memrise with its videos of real people and a wider variety of learning options beyond quizzes. But to get the full value out of Memrise, you need a subscription. I’m just not convinced that an app can do a great job at teaching you a language and I’m allergic to app subscriptions. I mostly stick with Duolingo because it’s free and keeps me in daily contact with the language, even if it’s not as good.

Reading Material

At the same time that we were doing the audio courses as a family, we added Spanish-language subscriptions (not that allergic!) to children’s magazines that we were already getting in English. We bought supplemental Spanish grammar books and incorporated it into both our home school curriculum and our regular religious observance. That’s been helpful to incorporate the language into more daily interactions.

Meeting the Locals

Lastly, when we were in Spain, we intentionally sought out opportunities to interact with Spaniards, whether at the local markets or museums. We intentionally sought out religious services each week where we could interact with locals in a setting that was familiar to us. I jokingly called it my two hour language course each week. The locals were very welcoming and patient. I was actually a little surprised at how much I understood.


I’m still far from fluent and my ability to communicate in Spanish is a work in progress. Even though it’s been almost a year since we left for our trip, we continue to strive as a family to stay in the language at least a little each day. We look forward to the time when we can again be in a Spanish-speaking country and interacting with the local culture.

Have you learned a language on your own? What are some tips or tricks that you have? I’d love to hear about them.

Hasta luego!

Sunset at Parque de Retiro

2 thoughts on “Learning a New Language

  1. My Spanish has atrophied pretty bad, but my oldest is taking Spanish and I’ve been having fun helping her out.

    I don’t recall seeing a summary of your trip to Spain on your blog. Did you do a formal writeup containing lessons learned, impact on children, recommendations? I’ve long wanted to do something similar but have never pulled the trigger.

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