Most everyone has an opinion on the subject of how to learn a foreign language. There are so many different opinions that one can’t count all the different language books and guides out there. I have personally tried at least four different methods; each and every one of them purporting to be the end all be all best way. I even went as far as to go the whole submersion/foreign home study thing. Did it help? No. Me and my fellow housemates (all Europeans) defaulted to our one common language, English, for all of our conversations. Why? We all wanted to exchange ideas and trade gossip after our Spanish classes; not practice more.

Everything I tried never really worked; none of the books, CDs, or online methods ever served to push me over that edge where I could see an approach to the endgame. Instead I merely mucked around on the fringes never learning more than bits and pieces. In all honesty I found every single method to be either tedious and convoluted, over simplistic, or just grindingly poke your eyes out with pencil boring

I’ve been screwing around trying to learn Spanish for almost 20 years. I will be the first to admit that I am a lazy language student and never tried a tenth as hard as I should have so I freely admit that the fault is basically mine. But I am a logical guy; I did after all learn a rather complex language called mathematics so why should learning Spanish really be any different? After all, languages are rule driven; you just need to learn the rules. So why was finding a breakthrough proving to be so difficult?

A few months ago either fate or fortune lit the path that brought me to what I hope is my last language school. They needed a native English speaker to teach an hour of conversational English and I needed Spanish lessons. We traded.

My Spanish teacher, Salvador, is not just a great guy but also totally fluent in both Spanish and English. In fact he probably speaks better English than I do and certainly knows the grammar much better. So if anybody can teach me Spanish he can.

But we still went through a series of mis-starts. Salvador tried what I would gather as a bunch of different tried and true teaching methods but I found that we were only making marginal progress.

In December my daughter bought me the book, Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs, which my good friend Hendrik hand delivered, and I began taking it to class. After using it for a few weeks the light gradually came on so for the first time in 20 years I can finally see the endgame. And like the solutions to other seemingly intractable problems the solution to me learning Spanish turned out to be far simpler than I ever thought. And yes, it is still going to take lots of work but I found the way by which I am finally going to learn Spanish.

Here is the order:

  1. Verbs
  2. Vocabulary
  3. Writing/reading/building sentences
  4. Conversation


Verbs are the key to the language. Do yourself a favor and buy yourself a copy of Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs. It is awesome and pretty much everyone that I have spoken with about the book (or shown the book to) agrees that it is the definitive guide to learning Spanish verbs.

Start by learning a verb this way: Learn to conjugate the verb in its entirety. You need to [obviously] learn the infinitive form and what the verb means in English (or whatever your native language is) then take it one step further by learning the past, present, and future tense of that verb in the first person. “I did, I do, I will do. I spoke, I speak, I will speak.” But follow the Barron’s presentation and learn the second and third person in past/present/future; including the plurals ‘us’ and ‘them’ at the same time.

Learn the key 55 verbs first. Practice conjugating the verb for first, second and third person across past, present and future tenses. Use the whiteboard. Also the book clearly presents both the past participle as well as the gerund form of the verb. It’s all rule based. The irregular verbs are the exception but that is where the whiteboard and practice comes in.


You will already have some basic vocabulary like ‘casa, cervezas, banos, etc.’ Now it is time to improve on what you know. I asked Salvador to test me on the names of [say] 100 different things. And for example if I got 20 of those things wrong, we’d then flag them, and he would re-quiz me the next day. We review and repeat until I get all 100 correct. Then we add 100 more.

We do the same with the verbs. Once you get comfortable with the 55 key verbs then pick another 55 verbs and repeat. Constantly review verbs and vocabulary words until they stick.

If you take an hour of Spanish per day/5 days per week like I do then mix it up. I do verbs on Monday, vocabulary on Tuesday, and so on; we break it up sometimes daily so it doesn’t get stale.


So in parallel as you learn verbs and build vocabulary extend that by white boarding sentences. For example have your teacher ask you to use different verbs in sentences – like the verb ‘Ir’. Construct a sentence using it in first person, future tense like ‘I will go to the market [tomorrow]’ or whatever. Mix it up. Then have him pick another verb, change it to third person plural and change the tense to past. Write it on the board. As you do this you will be forced to use what you’ve learned by way of verbs while working in your expanding vocabulary and in addition you will also be learning proper sentence structure. If you are like me, white boarding sentences will take you back in time to middle school which was the last place where I had to deal with grammar in its pure state. But if you want to learn Spanish you need a refresher in grammar. But it is easier than you remember. Sentences consist of basically 5 things: nouns, verbs, descriptors to nouns and verbs (adjectives and adverbs), connectors (like prepositions), and pronouns. Technically speaking I probably misspoke somewhere in the last couple of sentences but hey, I probably got a C in grammar all those years ago so give me a break.


Now that you’ve got a bunch of verbs (and their tenses) and a bigger vocabulary, and some formal sentence structure under your belt then it is time to start layering in some conversation. This is where you now begin to focus on how the spoken words sound. Beginning conversational language study is where you start fine tuning your ear so that it learns to catch the entirety of what someone is saying. This is proving to be very difficult for me as many Mexican’s don’t speak their Spanish very clearly or enunciate individual words. So I have found that spoken sentences don’t necessarily sound anything like what the written sentence looks like; people speak fast, words run together and so on.

All right, feel free to disagree with anything/everything that I’ve said, and that’s fine. And my response back to you is to say that what I just outlined is totally working for me; I am finally actually learning Spanish.

So to say it again in a slightly different way – learning Spanish all starts with learning the verbs. I thought of a rather interesting physics analogy while I was out on my run this afternoon. In physics there are scalar quantities and there are vector quantities. Scalar quantities have magnitude (a numerical value) whilst vector quantities have both a magnitude and a direction. So informationally speaking, vector quantities are more rich in information than scalar quantities because vector quantities tell you not just how big something is but also where it’s going. Verbs are like vector quantities while nouns and other simple vocabulary words like prepositions are scalar. If you know the right verb and can conjugate it correctly then your audience is able to not just discern the action, but when the action happened, and to whom or what the action happened to. In contrast, nouns and prepositions all by themselves are not informationally rich. Nor are verbs that you only know in the infinitive or first person present tense form.

And to use a slightly different argument on why I favor learning verbs first – or more correctly said – why I favor building my language study around verbs is that a lot of action that comes up conversationally happened in the past; ‘I did that, you went there, I gave it’, etc. So if you are following a language study program that concentrates on the teaching conjugating the verb only in the present tense then you’ll struggle later when you want to expand your skills; it is best to learn the past, present and future tenses at the same time. And that is precisely one of the places where I stumbled over the years in my study of Spanish. I thought, ‘Oh crap, I need to learn to use the past (or future) tense’ and I looked at some of the books and how they did their presentation of the different conjugations and it just confused me because a lot of the words for the different conjugations looked the same; so I gave up. Barron’s 501 Spanish Verbs made the learning easy because their presentation is so simple and straight forward.

Good luck to you. Study Spanish and apply yourself and you’ll be rewarded many times over.