Spanish is the most widely studied foreign language in the US, and one of the most popular second languages abroad. With over 480 million native speakers, it's no wonder why its often the foreign language of choice for new language learners.
Because of Spanish's popularity as foreign language, there is no shortage of learning resources available for learning it. In fact most language learning sites and companies start off by teaching Spanish.
But with so many options, it can be hard for new learners to know where to start. Not all Spanish learning resources are created equal. Some truly are better than others.
In this post we look at what makes a good Spanish course, and then we share our top picks using that criteria. The idea is that this post will help you find the best way to learn Spanish for you.
Ready? Lets go!
What makes a good Spanish course?
It helps with the harder points of grammar
Grammar is always one of the main hurdles language learners face when studying for fluency. Spanish has it's own set of grammatical challenges for native English speakers. A good course or program should take these into account and help learners understand how Spanish grammar works, versus merely requiring them to recite rules.
Below we listed some of the more common pain points for Spanish learners, which interestingly enough, all have to do with Spanish verbs.
Three parts of Spanish grammar often difficult for beginners
1) Verb conjugation
If you're a native English speaker, and Spanish is your first foreign language, then verb conjugation is going to take some getting used to.
Technically we conjugate verbs in English. Take a look at these sentences using the verb "to run" for instance:
Not a lot going on here. Notice how in English we say "she runs" and not "she run". That is the essence of verb conjugation. The form of the verb "run" changes when we use it with he/she as the subject or I/you/they/we.
Spanish verbs function the same way. except they have a different form for each personal pronoun. So where the English "to run" only has two forms in the present tense we used above, the Spanish form of the verb has five to six (depending on whether you're learning Latin American Spanish or Spanish from Spain).
A closer look at Spanish verb conjugation
Verb "to run"
Verb "correr" (to run)
*Vosotros form is only used in Spanish as spoken in Spain. Latin American Spanish uses the formal "you" (ustedes), which has the same conjugation as él and ella.
In the above table you can see Spanish verb conjugation in action, and how it compares to English. Also check out the video above the table if you want an even more in depth explanation on how verb conjugation works.
2) To Version of the verb "to be"
Spanish has two verbs that translate to the English verb "to be". Which one you use largely depends on the permanence or impermanence of the trait you're talking about. For example in English you'd say "I am old" when you're a grandparent, and "I am sick" when you're not feeling well.
In Spanish those those two sentences which each use a different verb. One verb denotes a state or trait that doesn't change quickly or at all. The other denotes a state that is likely to change.
3) Verbal moods and tenses
The truth is, verb conjugation and having two forms of the verb "to be" are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to challenges in Spanish grammar. There are also three verbal moods, and Verb tenses which differ from what most English speakers are used to.
Each verbal mood changes the form of the verb.There's one for talking about actions, events, or facts. There's another for talking about desires, doubts, wishes, and conjectures, and finally the third mood is for telling someone to do something.
Spanish verb tenses also don't function in quite the same way as in English. For instance there is one past tense form of a verb used when you're talking about a specific action completed in the past. There's another used when describing habitual/regular actions done in the past.
We're not going to get into the nitty-gritty of this stuff. Otherwise we'd run the risk of turning this post into an intermediate level grammar lesson.
It teaches Spanish holistically
There are four aspects to almost all modern languages: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. A great program will incorporate all (or at least most), of these into its approach. Some learners fall into the trap of thinking that each aspect is an isolated skill, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
In language learning your reading reinforces your speaking, which helps your listening, and also your writing. These four skills are connected. While it's perfectly fine to concentrate on one for awhile, a good Spanish program will help you become comfortable with all four over time.
It teaches Spanish you're likely to use
When you're just starting out, it's important to learn words and grammar you're likely to use right away. Learning phrases like "the dog eats" or "the doctor eats the apple", don't do much to build a functional vocabulary. A good course will get you talking about yourself, and give you the vocabulary you need to get to know others (ie have real conversations).
You can know 100 grammar rules off the top of your head, but until you start using your Spanish in conversations with real people, you'll never develop fluency in the language. Your learning materials should help you prepare such real life interactions..
Our top picks for best Spanish courses
So now that you know some of the criteria of good learning programs, lets take a look at our top list of recommendations!
1) Rocket Spanish
20+ minutes a day
Rocket Spanish is built around two lesson types: one which focuses on teaching conversational Spanish, and one which focuses on mastering grammar.
The conversational lessons are built around recorded audio in the form of dialogues. The dialogues have English explanations and usually teach the language in "chunks" or phrases versus individual words (this is great for conversational Spanish).
The grammar themed lessons break down specific grammar rules, while providing real world examples so you can see the rules in action.
Both lesson types include audio and exercises to help you practice what you study. There's even audio playback to help you with pronunciation, and written exercises to help develop your writing skills.
Overall Rocket Spanish is a comprehensive course that does a good job of incorporating speaking and listening, as well as reading and writing. It strikes a nice balance between teaching Spanish you can use in real life, while at the same time exposing you to Spanish grammar.
From $4+ per month
15+ minutes a day
Spanishpod101 features audio lessons in a podcast format. Each lesson is designed around a Spanish conversation between native speakers, and the teachers do a great job of keeping things engaging. They share cultural insights, tips on using new vocabulary, and even a funny personal story or two.
One of my favorite things about the podcast is that it allows you to learn grammar in the context of a real Spanish conversation. This way you can see how the grammar is used.
There are literally hundreds of lessons available, and they're sorted by topic and level. This makes Spanishpod101 ideal for those interested in studying Spanish independently, as the site allows the user to bounce around the content as he or she pleases (without having to unlock anything through tests or quizzes).
The site also has a collection of tools and resources to help you learn Spanish, including an in-site flashcard system, slow audio playback, dictionary, lesson transcripts and more.
Free with ads or $10/month
5+ minutes a day
Duolingo is easily the most recognizable language learning app available. Duolingo breaks down its curriculum into modules which each contain a collection of individual lessons. Modules are centered around a grammar rule or vocabulary set (like sports vocabulary for instance).
Throughout each lessons users will be required to speak, listen, read, and write in Spanish. The app uses a combination of fill in the blank, matching, translation, and listening comprehension exercises.
The app is free to use with ads. However, when you get a question wrong in a lesson you lose a life. If you run out of lives you have to wait several hours before you can use the app again. The paid version of Duolingo eliminates ads, and allows the user to use the app indefinitely.
Duolingo Spanish is robust learning app that's definitely worth taking a look at if you're serious about learning Spanish!
$14.95 per month
30 minutes a day
Pimsleur is probably the second most popular language course behind Rosetta Stone. Pimsleur is largely audio based and is specifically designed to develop your conversational skills. .
The course uses a unique and effective question/recall/respond technique to get you on your feet in your new foreign language. With Pimsleur You'll learn a limited but functional vocabulary and have a good sense of pronunciation.
The real advantage of this kind of approach is that you learn grammar implicitly (via conversation patterns), and not simply explicitly (through rules and grammar charts). It's one thing to know grammar. It's quite another to actually use it in a conversation. Pimsleur the only app I know of that does this.
The app also includes a hefty reading track woven in the audio lessons. Learners are first taught by reading texts phonetically (along with native audio) in order to master the Spanish sound system. As your proficiency in the language increases so does the length and difficulty of the texts. Before you know it you'll be reading Spanish with a full understanding of the texts.
There are currently five levels of Spanish Pimsleur. When completed they will take you from beginner to upper intermediate. For a monthly subscription of $14.95 you get access to all lessons across all five levels.
There's also a free trial offer, which gives you one week of full free access to Pimsleur's Spanish courses. If you want to develop your conversational skills in Spanish than this app is definitely worth looking into.
5) Gritty Spanish
20+ minutes a day
This program made the list with intermediate learners and upper beginners in mind. Once you can carry out typical conversations in Spanish, you start to notice a disconnect between the Spanish you learn in a textbook and the Spanish you hear on the street. Gritty Spanish helps bridge this gap for its users.
Gritty Spanish is an audio based learning program centered around a series of recorded dialogues. Each dialogue has two recordings (one faster and one slower), as well as written transcripts in both English and Spanish.
The dialogues feature casual and informal Spanish in a range of different accents, using turns of phrase, colloquialisms, and even curse words (though a censored version of the course is also available).
This program isn't a full on Spanish curriculum, and it doesn't pretend to be. It's true strength is as a Spanish learning tool.
The conversations are centered on everyday informal interactions you're likely to have on the streets with native Spanish speakers. If you have some Spanish under your belt and you want to gear up for real world interactions in the language, this is the course for you.
$6+ per hour (varies between teachers)
30 minute or 1 hour lessons
Italki isn't a course or program for learning a language. Rather it's an online market place that connects language learners with language teachers for one-on-one language classes via video or audio chat. You have the options of taking lessons with professional language teachers from across the globe (from about any Spanish speaking country you can imagine).
You can also find tutors on the site, who may not be professional teachers, but are available to help you practice your reading or conversation skills.
In addition to the paid lessons, Italki also provides many great free features such as a public notebook where you can write in Spanish and have your work corrected by native speakers, a language learning blog published by teachers, and the ability to search and connect with native Spanish speakers who are learning English for a language exchange.
*with a purchase of $20 or more. After your first purchased lesson a credit of $10 will be added to your account
From $6.95+ per month
15+ minutes a day
Babbel Spanish features lessons in a quiz based format. Lessons are separated by course categories which include things like difficulty level and specific aspects of grammar.
Babbel works well as a supplement for your daily Spanish learning, and it's good for learning the foundations of the language, including vocabulary and basic grammar. It's also a great way to practice and review what you already know!
That concludes our top picks for Spanish learning programs. Hopefully this post helped you narrow your search and find the course that's right for you.
Remember though, that your dedication and commitment to language learning is really what will make or break your journey to fluency. Having a good course helps, but in the end you are the key to your own success!