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Learning a new language in 2023

Four years or so ago I set out to learn Spanish. I downloaded the Duolingo app from the app store, and started tapping away. A cheeky owl would remind me to clock in my daily practice, which I did on my way to work, and I managed to maintain a 100+ day streak. Spanish course complete, I booked a trip to Mexico to test drive my newly acquired skill.

Despite the owl's attestation of my skills, they did not fare so well out in the wild. All the excitement I had about my new skill fled my brain at the very first opportunity to put my Spanish to use.

I was very disappointed to find that IRL no one was holding up colorful tiles of words for me to choose from! If only someone would give me 90% of the sentence and asked me to fill in the blank, again, I swear I would get it right!

Alas, that’s not how the world works (at least not yet) and having a perfect Duolingo record doesn’t translate to being fluent in a language (or even intermediate, for that matter).

This past February I had another trip to Mexico coming up. I was going with a few of my friends, one of whom was my college roommate and took four years of Spanish at the time. As is often the case with college friends, there's a sense of competition that never quite goes away, so I became determined to master Spanish at the very least to be on par with her.

So what qualifies me to write this post?

Well not much, except, at some point on the trip (my friend not knowing I was secretly having a little competition in my head), commented: “I’m so impressed with your Spanish, it’s basically as good as mine”. I'd say that's enough qualification to spew advice into the web.

While the trip was great motivation for getting started, unlike last time, I have actually kept up with learning afterwards. It's been a rewarding journey, and I can feel myself getting more and more comfortable with the language with every week of practice.

For anyone embarking on a similar journey to learn a language, I wanted to share some of the tools that have really helped me, as I truly believe you can do so much better than Duolingo. So here are some of my recs:

Practicing speaking

Ok, I think this is actually the most important part — all that theoretical knowledge is nice but useless unless you can deploy it. The hardest part about speaking a language is often overcoming the mental of embarrassing yourself. When you’re first starting out, speaking can feel really really vulnerable as you stumble on your words, try to recall conjugation, perfect your accent.

Striking up a conversation with a stranger in a foreign country can be absolutely terrifying, which is why you need to find yourself a safe environment to practice in first.


So if you take nothing else away, this is my #1 recommendation: sign up for Preply and find yourself a tutor.

Preply is an app that connects you to native speakers — lessons can range from $10-$50 or so. I pay about $20 / hour. I promise you, you will get more out of an hour of speaking than you will ever get out of 10 hours of Duolingo.

Seriously, this made the biggest difference in my learning journey, and here’s why:

  1. First of all, as stated above, practicing speaking is the best way to solidify your knowledge. Speaking is how you start to form neural pathways, which is what gets that knowledge to stick. It’s going to feel really tough at first, mustering all your brain muscles to string sentences together. However that mental effort you feel — that’s you learning! This is just like working out — no pain, no gain. Over time, rather than conjugating each word individually, you will start to feel more at ease, with more expressions rolling off your tongue (the same way you don’t think about conjugating every single word in your native language.

  2. This is your anchor, and one thing to keep you accountable — again, just like with sports, learning a language is all about consistency. You’ll have weeks when you get more practice, and weeks where you slack off a bit more. For me this is the one thing I try not to skip (unless I’m traveling and my schedule gets really crazy). It’s the thing that helps keep me motivated.

  3. Beyond accountability, this will help you stay motivated, like a real life progress bar — I promise you will notice your conversation get more advanced from lesson to lesson. It’s so gratifying to be able to get into more complex topics — the first time I was able to explain what I do for work to my tutor I got such an adrenaline rush, I think I rode it for a week.

I started out with lessons once a week, but eventually increased them to twice a week. Since I don’t live in a country where I’m constantly surrounded by the language, I found that to be the best way to accelerate my progress.


Tandem is an app that helps connect you to other people learning languages. You can see what language someone else is native in and what language they’re trying to learn, and connect with them. So if you’re learning Spanish and they’re learning English, this becomes a mutually beneficial exercise.

You can talk to people simply by texting (which is also an important modern skill to have!) or by chatting over audio / video. One feature that I find to be very cool is that you can correct someone’s grammar and they can correct yours, so you can learn from your mistakes.

They also have a Twitter Spaces like feature where you can both listen or get on stage to participate.

Of course, to speak, you also need to learn some of the basics, so here are my recommendations for that.

Learning basics and grammar

As a starting point, I ordered a book of Spanish grammar and exercised off of Amazon. You can find the beginner one here, and the advanced one here (there is a third, which I must admit, I haven’t done yet, though I do recommend the first two!). I would set aside at least 30 minutes a night to get through at least a few pages of it. It does a really great job walking you through the explanations, and then giving you a chance to practice it.

Conjugation is hard, and there’s no way to get better at it other than practicing and giving myself small quizzes. If I got something wrong I would make note of it, and try to do the same tense and verb combination the next day.

It’s kind of old fashioned, but there’s just no other way (that’s worked for me at least) to learn grammar.

Improving your vocabulary

Speaking of old fashioned, here's another classic pairing: note cards + Sharpies.

As you go through the book, you’ll also be learning vocabulary as you encounter new words. I recommend ordering some note cards and sharpies to keep track of them. Write the foreign word on one side, and the translation on the other.

In the mornings as I had my coffee, I would go through the stack of note cards a few times, shuffling them and quizzing myself one word at a time. Sometimes for extra accountability, I would ask my boyfriend to quiz me (it’s good motivation to run through them one more time).

Another way, of course, to pick up some vocab is reading. I’ll be honest, I have a hard time picking up and finishing a book these days, let alone at a pace of 15 minutes a page (with all pauses to look up words), and I would say of all the advice in here, this is the one I’m least consistent about. But, it it works for you, it is highly effective!

Practicing your listening skills

If your goal is to practice and speak the language you’re learning in the wild, reading and writing is not enough — at some point you have to speak, but also listen (two ears, one mouth all that…). While tutors are one way to practice your listening and speaking, they are more likely to tamper their pace and vocabulary to match your skillset.

There are two things that I’ve found very helpful in honing those in: rewatching old TV shows in the language (with subtitles), and listening to podcasts.

Rewatching TV shows, but in Spanish and with subtitles on (also in Spanish… or whatever language you’re learning)

Look, I’m the first to hate on dubbing, so let me explain why I find it more helpful than picking a Spanish TV show or move to start.

Especially when you’re just starting out, you’re not going to understand very many words. This is a great way to learn vocabulary, and I absolutely recommend using Google Translate and writing down words you don’t know to add to your note card collection. This also means — you’re going to be pausing a lot. When you’re watching something new, this gets frustrating quickly and it becomes too easy to lose track of the plot.

By rewatching something you’ve already seen, you can relax a bit more, and not worry so much about translating every single word.

It also helps you learn and pick up words from context, which will help you form associations.

I recommend picking something easy to digest. I’ve been watching Sex and the City and it’s been really fun (and yes, I’ve learned more than just sex words, chill Samantha!).


I love walking! It’s my favorite solo weekend activity (and of course I’m super lucky since I live in New York, which is just perfect for that).

And there’s no better way of turning a walk into a productive walk than by learning along the way.

I highly recommend Easy Spanish for Spanish learners. It’s available on Spotify as well as other Podcast platforms. The entire podcast is just a conversation between two people in Spanish, which is a great way to catch some casual day-to-day phrases.

Since I don’t have my note cards when I’m walking around, my trick is to take screenshots of Google Translate and then turn them into notecards when I get home. And yes, I realize there are probably apps or websites for digital notecards. But I like the old fashioned vibe, and I do also believe that writing things down makes you remember them better (I have a very visual memory so I often find myself mentally flipping through my notecards as I try to recall a word).

Whatever you do, continue to practice, practice, practice and don’t give up!

Different things work for different people — above are just tools that are available at your disposal. Start small, and with something you know you can stick to, and don’t try to bite off more than you can chew at once.

Buena suerte!