7 tips and tools for learning a language on your own

For the past year and a half I’ve been trying to improve my Spanish. Because of my schedule and having most social interactions in English, I’ve largely employed self-study methods. Here are some of the tools that I’ve found most helpful!

(Note: I’m learning Spanish but I think these apply no matter what language you’re studying. The specific recommendations, though, are for Spanish learners.)

1. Podcasts 

Podcasts are great because there’s really no excuse not to do them. I listen to Spanish podcasts mostly while doing chores or taking short walks around the city. They’ve greatly helped my listening comprehension (and I’ve learned a lot about Spain and its culture), but the downside is they don’t improve your speaking skills too much.

For those learning Spanish, particularly in Spain- I highly recommend Notes in Spanish.

The podcast is hosted by a married couple, Ben and Marina, who live in Madrid. Ben is English, but speaks excellent Spanish and does a good job of pointing out certain words or grammar points that trip up native English speakers. Marina is Spanish, and most of their conversations center around Spanish culture and news (many of the episodes are from 2006-2009, but the topics are often still relevant today). As a couple they have a good sense of humor, and Marina will point out Ben’s mistakes and repeat tricky phrases several times. I also find their voices pleasant, which is important when you spend so much time listening to someone!

(I bought the “Whole Enchilada” which includes transcripts and vocab sheets for the podcast. I’m not using the transcripts as much as I thought I would, because I’m usually listening to the podcast while doing other activities. But if you can listen while following along with the transcript you really will learn faster.)

2. Kindle 

Reading in another language is a great way to bolster your vocab and solidify those pesky grammar rules. A Kindle is nice because you can highlight a word or a sentence to get an instant translation into English. Kindle also stores all these highlights on your account at https://read.amazon.com/notebook so you can revisit them later on.

Here’s Kindle’s online interface- a great way to revisit vocab you highlighted on your Kindle!

Side bonus- it’s a great excuse to read books you loved as a kid (because that’s probably your reading level). Knowing the plot can take some of the pressure off if you do get “lost” on a more challenging book!

3. Google Translate (mobile app)

When I first lived abroad I found it really helpful to carry a small notebook with me everywhere I went. I’d jot down new words learned during the day so I could look them up and review them later.

Well, no need for a notebook anymore. We all carry phones in our pockets now! 

The Google Translate app lets you search translations in seconds. You can also star certain words to add them to your “phrasebook” which you can sort and review later, as well as access from other devices.

I’ve also found the Google Translate browser extension to be really helpful for fast translations while on your computer. I use it in tandem with my Kindle highlights to review these and put them into a notebook:

4. Subtitles

Similar to the podcasts, adding subtitles to the shows and movies you’re already watching is so easy you might as well do it. Even if I decide to watch a movie with English audio, turning on the subtitles in Spanish can help me pick up a few words and phrases!

A movie with Spanish audio and English subtitles can help you hear the flow and sound of the language while also following the plot.

As your reading comprehension picks up (from your Kindle, perhaps!), you can switch to Spanish audio with Spanish subtitles. Double-whammy! I find this to be really difficult if it’s late and my brain is tired, but it’s a great way to maximize your exposure to the language.

Netflix in particular has many great shows both in Spanish and with Spanish subtitles. We’re currently watching The Queen of Flow (La Reina del Flow) and it. is. fantastic.

5. Youtube videos

There are many incredible free learning resources on YouTube and anyone can find something to match their desired language and skill level.

I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of these resources, most recently exploring NachoTime Spanish. Nacho aims to get you out of “Spanish intermediate purgatory” and the videos incorporate pausing the video and repeating phrases aloud. I find his videos challenging; by the end of one 12 minute video my brain will be exhausted. That’s usually a good sign that I’m learning!

6. Force yourself to speak

You have to speak the language, that’s the only way to improve your speaking. No app or tool can really help you get around this.

Yes, you’ll sound like an idiot. You’ll step out of your comfort zone. People won’t understand you. This is part of the learning process.

In case it helps, remind yourself that this is how humans learn language. We crawl before we walk. This one is still hard for me, but I’m getting better!

7. Find ways to measure your progress

I remember going into a barbershop for the first time here in Barcelona. I was really anxious – not because they might butcher my haircut (I don’t have enough hair for that to be possible) – but because I would sound like an idiot trying to explain what type of cut I want.

And I did sound like an idiot. See #6 above!

Two months later I went back, less scared. We chatted more. There were some long silences and I didn’t understand everything the barber asked me, but it was better than the first time.

Then I realized that my haircuts became a way to measure my progress. It’s a nice test- I’m trapped in a chair for twenty minutes with nothing to do except talk to a native speaker.

Learning a language is, to steal Stephen King’s metaphor for writing a novel, like crossing an ocean in bathtub. It can be tricky to know where you’re going or to see if you’ve made any progress. This can lead to discouragement.

It really helps to find a way to measure your progress. Whether it’s rewatching a TV episode in Spanish the 2nd time and realizing you understand much more, or chatting with a friend who’s a native speaker and asking for feedback, or taking a free online course every few months, it’s good to celebrate the wins!

And it just so turns out that I am overdue for my next haircut. Wish me luck!

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