Tu hablas español?

For years, I have not been able to answer, “Sí” to this question. Instead, I would wince and hold my index finger just above my thumb and say, “Un poquito.”

This isn’t the first time I have tried to learn Spanish. I’ve been on a Spanish taster course where my enduring memory is my partner asking, “¿Qué significa? every five minutes. I completed the Collins book/CD combo one summer between University terms. I’ve filled books copying out phrases and memorising how to sound like a local ahead of a month spent in Peru. I’ve spent time on Duolingo learning to say, “The tortoise drinks milk.”

However, nothing really stuck. Aged 19 and working in a resort, I befriended a girl from Madrid who was learning English on the job. I promised her that we’d speak Spanish together next time we met. As I’ve not mastered it, I’m ashamed to say I’ve avoided her a bit.

Then, in London, I lived in a shared house with many Spanish housemates coming and going. The only time I felt confident enough to speak was after a glass of wine, when my tongue would loosen up and a few random phrases would splurge out.

I’ve even run shows in Spanish in my old job as a conference producer, but my dark secret is that I used Google Translate to help me write the copy.

To top it all off, I’m tongue-tied and believed that I would never be able to roll my r’s. The idea of never being able to sound like a local put me off learning for a while, until I learnt they don’t roll their r’s in Costa Rica.

Yet something has snapped recently. I want to move to Costa Rica next year, not just for the ‘pura vida,’ but I heard they speak more slowly there. I now have a tangible timeline to get speaking Spanish.

Since giving up social media (read here), I’ve spent around 20 hours a week teaching myself. In the last month or so, I’ve expanded my vocabulary and I can construct basic sentences in all tenses (although I’m ignoring the two past pretérito tenses that we don’t even have in English).

I understand where to stick my pronouns when dealing with direct/indirect objects, and my listening comprehension is decent enough that I can follow podcasts with a few pauses.

Miraculously, I taught myself how to roll my r’s (exhale then say ‘tres’) much to the relief of Tom, who had to put up with me repeating the word ‘butter’ for hours on end to no avail.

So, here is my new multifaceted approach. The best part? It is completely free. No tutors, no courses, just using the resources readily available.

Immersion is key
I knew that I would need to practice all the components of language use: from reading and listening to the productive skills of speaking and writing. To cover these bases, I am using a few methods simultaneously:
– Duolingo, the courses and the Stories function (writing, vocabulary, grammar)
– Podcasts (listening, comprehension, vocabulary)
– Online articles (reading, comprehension)
– Spanish comic books (slang vocabulary, comprehension)
– Listening to Spanish artists on Spotify (comprehension, pronunciation)
– Copying out phrases and verb tables from books borrowed from the library
– Checking unfamiliar words on WordReference.com
– Messaging friends and arranging face-to-face sessions to practice speaking.
I’ve also been watching Narcos and concentrating on sentence formation and pronunciation, whilst learning some swear words along the way. For more information about the resources I’m using, see the Notes section at the end.


Making mistakes
Teaching English, I encourage my students to be brave enough to make mistakes because if they’re afraid of ever being wrong, they’ll never progress in their quest to learn another language.

As an adult it can be humiliating, but if you have encouraging friends who are willing to correct every other sentence you are lucky. I am involuntarily getting my mates into stitches. The other day, I asked my friend this: “¿Quiero bailar salsa conmigo?” Instead of asking her if she wanted to salsa dance with me, I had pondered aloud whether I wanted to dance with myself.

Mind maps
I love encountering new Spanish words that have some semblance to the English version. Despite having different etymological roots (Spanish is a Romantic language developed from Vulgar Latin, whereas English has Germanic roots), there are many Spanish words that we have adopted into our everyday lingo.

These include words such as breeze (from brisa), mustang (from mesteño meaning untamed), mosquito (literal translation is little fly), vigilante (lit. watchman), guerilla (lit. small war), and my favourite, armadillo (lit. little armoured one). There are lots more examples here.
Here are my own observations so far:

  • Me alegro – I’m glad. Reminds me ‘allegro’ from reading music, which means play quickly or cheerfully.
  • Amistadfriendship. Similar to armistice which means a truce.
  • Aparecerappear. Conjures up the image of an apparition suddenly popping up.
  • Compromiso – commitment. What is commitment without a bit of compromise?
  • Espactáculo – show. I imagine the ringmaster Zidler from Moulin Rouge for this one.
  • Sangre – blood. Like sangria. I suppose both are red liquids. Mmmm.
  • Profunda – deep. This is used to describe physical depth, not just the ‘totally metaphysical, dude’, i.e. El lago es profundo. The lake is deep.
  • Apenas – barely. I feel like this cruel joke needs no explaining.
  • Cierre – closing / zipper. This has a dual meaning but I like how the function of a zipper, that is, to close two pieces of clothing, can be applied.
  • Labios – lips. This means the lips on your face, by the way.
  • Recordar – remember. Thinking about the brain practically recording experiences is interesting, since we usually attribute memory as something more emotional.
  • Soldedad – loneliness. Close to solitude so easy to remember.
  • Corbata – tie. I think of Jeremy Corbyn who famously shirks wearing a tie.
  • Hielo – ice. Of course, when saying it we omit the ‘h,’ but it brings to mind the sarcastic idiom, “When hell freezes over.”
  • Iglesia – church. I got very excited when I realised Enrique Iglesias meant Enrique Churches. Same for Lana del Rey which translates to King’s wool bizarrely.
  • Hablaba – past continuous verb form of ‘talk’. As the Spanish omit the ‘h’ when pronouncing words, this comes out as ‘ablahblah.’
  • Abrazo – hug. I love this one as ‘brazo’ means arm, which is required for a hug.

(Un)healthy competition
My main motivation at the moment comes from the speaking dates with friends I’ve booked in, the expiry date on the loan of my library books, and most significantly, my Duolingo group weekly leaderboard. I completed Duolingo in the past month (I’m level 17, thanks for asking) mainly because I have waged war on an American stranger called Benson who stole my crown one week.


Getting down to basics
If you are just visiting a place briefly, then a few stock phrases should get you through. However, if you want to speak for more than three minutes, you’ll need to learn how the building blocks fit together to form coherent sentences.

I’ve learnt that there are three main verb endings: -ar, e.g. hablar (to talk), -er, e.g. comer (to eat), – ir e.g. vivir (to live).

Unlike English which has many irregular verbs, Spanish grammar rules appear to be more consistent. That is, until you hit ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ which are the two forms of ‘to be’ depending on the permanence of the context.

Of course, there is far more to it than just verbs, but covering articles, gendered common nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, tenses, forming questions, pronouns, negatives, possession, reflexives, passive etc. is something other blogs can do far better than I can.

I’ve decided my next post will be solely focused on some of the wonderfully strange, sometimes disturbing and always entertaining phrases I’ve picked up from Duolingo.

Look at where his moustache sits



Duolingo – interactive learning, podcasts, stories, worksheets and more. Also available as an app but with limited functions.
LightSpeed Spanish – free podcasts and help sheets for all levels
Marca – Spanish news online
Idiotizadas, by Raquel Córcoles
Recommended Spotify artists: Carlos Sadness, Lágrimas Negras and Chico & Rita soundtrack.
Library books:
Lonely Planet Latin American Spanish, Phrasebook and Dictionary.
Spanish Essentials for Dummies
Collins Easy Learning Spanish Verbs
WordReference.com – quick translations and accurate definitions and examples
False Friends Online Dictionary
Babbel, ‘143 English Words That Are Actually Spanish.’


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Love this! I always get cebolla and caballo mixed up!


    1. Thanks! Glad I’m not the only one 😉


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