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The Best Books for Learning Spanish

recommended by Benny Lewis

Language Hacking Spanish: A Conversation Course for Beginners by Benny Lewis

Language Hacking Spanish: A Conversation Course for Beginners
by Benny Lewis

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Benny Lewis, polyglot and author of the popular language-learning blog Fluent in Three Months, recommends the best books for learning Spanish, the language that started him on the path to multilingualism. He explains why beginners should be wary of grammar, and why forcing yourself to make mistakes is the key to success.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Language Hacking Spanish: A Conversation Course for Beginners by Benny Lewis

Language Hacking Spanish: A Conversation Course for Beginners
by Benny Lewis

Read

Today we’re going to talk about the best books for people who are learning Spanish. But before we start, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about what it takes. Can we really teach ourselves to speak a new language?

Absolutely. I always like to preface any discussion by saying that I came from a background of ‘not being good at languages.’ There’s a myth that a lot of people have embraced, where you’re either good at technical stuff or you’re good at the arts and languages, and I very much believed that myself. I am an electronic engineer by trade, and consider myself more of a technical person: good at science, and mathematics, and so on. But part of the problem is this self-fulfilling prophecy; people will look for evidence as to why they’re not good at languages.

I got myself out of that mindset, by embracing mistakes. If anyone takes anything from my advice, the biggest thing I would say is that they have to get out there and make mistakes in whatever language they’re learning, be it Spanish or anything else.

In my case, I moved to Spain. I thought that that would solve my problems. But it didn’t—I lived six entire months in Valencia, and didn’t learn any Spanish, because all my friends were English speakers. This is a mistake a lot of people make. They go to the country, and have a good time, but they have a good time with people who speak English. What made a difference was when I finally thought to myself, ‘I need to start consistently speaking Spanish.’

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At that point my Spanish was absolutely miserable. Completely grammatically incorrect. I didn’t know any of the words that I needed to know. When I wanted to get an electric toothbrush fixed, I had to say, ‘tooth machine not good, won’t go!’ But saying that in Spanish worked. I was able to get a refund. I didn’t even know the word for ‘refund.’ I just said, ‘to and fro, to and fro, money to and fro,’ and it worked.

This is the biggest thing by far. You have to get out of the academic mindset in which you need to get your grammar perfect, you need to use exactly the right words, you need to sound sophisticated—and until you’re at that point, you’re not worthy of actually speaking the language. You need to embrace sounding like a Tarzan version of a Spanish speaker.

Ha! So, to begin with, take a creative approach, concentrating on communicating-by-any-means rather being too focused on what’s right.

Definitely.

As part of your Fluent in Three Months project, you’ve learned a lot of different languages. What do you think is difficult about Spanish, and what’s easy?

Well, it’s funny, because whenever people ask me what the hardest language I’ve learnt was, I tend to say it was Spanish, but not for the reasons people might think. I’ve dabbled in Hungarian, and in Mandarin, and even in the Quechua language that the Incas used to speak. But the reason Spanish was the hardest for me was because it was the first, and learning a language for the first time meant that I was constantly doubting myself.

But in terms of comparing languages from one to another, one of the trickier technical aspects of Spanish would be conjugation. In other European languages you don’t have the same kind of vowel changes. As an example, in Spanish, if I wanted to say the verb ‘to count,’ it’s ‘contar,’ so it sounds a little like the English. But if you wanted to say ‘I count,’ it’s ‘cuento’ – that ‘o’ sound changes to a ‘ue’ sound instead and that vowel change can be very confusing. But, ultimately, it follows a rule, and it’s a straightforward rule; essentially, if where that sound would appear is the stressed syllable in a word (it is in ‘cuento’ but isn’t in ‘contar’, since that ends with an ‘r’), then the more complex version of the sound is what you say. It just takes a little bit of practice and a lot of exposure for it to seep into your brain, but this rule then applies to all similar vowel changes that initially seem random. So it follows rules, although it can just feel quite random, and you might think, ‘Why don’t they just say ‘conto’ instead of ‘cuento’ in Spanish?’

There are a lot of these kind of questions you’ll have when you start learning any language. But one thing I like to remind people of is that if you’re coming from English, you’re coming from one of the most illogical languages of the world. Think of the many ways you can pronounce O-U-G-H. I think there are seven or eight different ways.

Yes. ‘Off,’ as in ‘cough.’ ‘Uff,’ as in ‘rough.’ ‘Uh,’ as in ‘borough’ (or ‘oh,’ in American English). ‘Aw,’ as in ‘ought.’ ‘Up,’ as in ‘hiccough’… Those are just off the top of my head.

So there are a lot of spelling and pronunciation inconsistencies in English. Whenever someone says, ‘Spanish is crazy, they do this, they do that,’ I have at least 100 retorts for them, as to why English is crazier.

I could give a list of things that makes Spanish different to English, but it’s better, from a mentality perspective, to just accept that and move forward. And when it comes to the example I just gave, with conjugations, it’s better as a beginner not to worry about that. If you’re talking to a Spaniard and you say ‘yo conto,’ which is not quite correct—kind of like somebody saying, ‘I like-ee’ if they were speaking in English—they know it’s not right, but they know what you mean. With Spanish, you will come across these things that are a little tricky, but it’s fine if you don’t get them at first.

Maybe that brings us to a book that acts as a starting point for the beginner language-learner. This is The Complete Teach Yourself Spanish course-book. It’s a workbook with an accompanying CD. Why have you chosen this course in particular?

I’m a big fan of the Teach Yourself series. I have been for a very, very long time, and they ultimately brought me on to teach my own courses with them. So I’m good friends with that publisher now. But long before they ever got in touch with me, I liked that they had a traditional course—what people think of when they’re looking for a language course—something that has exercises, that teaches you some grammar, that has vocabulary lists. I like the process that they use more than other courses, because they don’t try to overload you with grammar, and they try to give you some example conversations. It’s a good balance. I definitely like how Teach Yourself does it.

How do you suggest people approach this course? Should they be trying to learn Spanish with a book like this by using it every day, little and often, or should they be investing larger chunks of time?

It’s like anything. If you want to improve your skills, you need to be as dedicated as possible.

One thing I would recommend—especially with languages, because languages require you to change how you think in certain ways—is rather than putting in 30 minutes a day, for a year, I would suggest that, for the next three months, you make a few sacrifices. Don’t watch your favourite shows on Netflix, take one less day out of the week to go out with your mates to the pub, and make these sacrifices—not for the rest of your life, but for a short period. Then for those months you put in a few hours a day, if you can.

Say you were going to put 1,000 hours towards learning Spanish. You could spread that out over five years. I’m sure many people would relate to that from doing it in school. I studied German in school, spread those hours out, and in the end I didn’t really have that much to show for it. But when you are doing it consistently, and you keep momentum up, you really do see a difference. So I would recommend people try to do intensive bursts to get themselves started with a language. Do two hours in one session rather than four half-hour sessions, and you’ll get so much better bang for your buck.

That’s interesting. I suppose the issue with language learning, as it is with learning an instrument and other skills, is that it is difficult to keep the momentum, the motivation up over a long enough period to see the benefit.

Yes. And it is hard to feel that benefit at the initial stages. When we think of speaking a language, we use our native language as a basis of comparison. So we think of success as when we’re able to have a certain level of complexity—like, you can talk about your deepest philosophical beliefs. You can reach that stage, and I have reached that stage in several of my languages, but you get there only by embracing the beginner stages.

So: you have to feel a lot of pride in the fact that maybe you did just have a five-minute conversation about what you do on Monday mornings, you know? The other stuff will come. This is why I say I have a goal of making mistakes. I aim to make 200 mistakes a day—that’s kind of part of my philosophy. Then it’s a lot easier to get into your flow, because you’re ticking that box of making mistakes rather than ticking the box of, ‘I’m going to have a debate on the meaning of existence in Spanish.’ That’s not something you really want to be worried about in your first months.

Although maybe some of the writers in our next book might be more worried about the meaning of existence… this is Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text. This is a collection of short fiction, including work by celebrated Spanish-language authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende—with an English translation presented in parallel.

Yes. So this comes from my philosophy of trying to use the language as quickly as possible, to get a real feel of the language and step back from the grammar side of things. When I was at school and learning, in my case, German, I got over-packed with grammar. It made the language feel a lot less alive. Now, with a book like this, with a parallel text, is that you try to read that text in Spanish first—even one paragraph. You’re not going to understand it all, but the goal isn’t to understand everything, it’s to get as much as you possibly can.

Maybe there are just two words out of a sentence that you are actually understanding. But with that in mind, you’re able to extrapolate and guess: what are they saying? As a beginner, you’re not going to get much out of a book if you’re just guessing, there are just too many gaps there, but you simply look to the other page and see the English equivalent, and that way you get caught up. Now you have so much more context, and you see a bit more about the story, which means that when you read the next paragraph in Spanish, you’re way more likely to understand what’s going on.

“This is an authentic way of using the language in a more sophisticated, adult way”

If you’re working from zero context throughout the book, then it’s going to feel extraordinarily frustrating. But of course, this bilingual text happens to be from interesting stories, stories you might be familiar with already. You will probably be familiar with the authors, and that gives you a sense of reading a real text, not the Teletubbies in Spanish, or something. This is an authentic way of using the language in a more sophisticated, adult way. The English is there for reference, you are not using this as you would read a regular novel at the end of the night. You’re using this specifically to try to get that Spanish out, and the English is there for you as a crutch.

And it’s okay to do that. One of the dumbest ideas I ever had was to try to read El Señor de los Anillos (The Lord of the Rings) with just a dictionary.

Ha!

It took me two weeks to get to page two, and I didn’t really understand what I was reading, because I had little individual words out of context. Whereas, with reading a bilingual text, you get so much more. You can try to read, see what you do understand, and then when you see the English part, you’ll feel a certain pride, because you’ll think, ‘ah, I did know that word,’ and that gives you a boost. That’s the reason I wanted to recommend this book. You’re essentially able to start reading Spanish on day one, filling in all of the gaps in your understanding, because obviously there are going to be plenty of gaps.

What you were saying earlier about trying to understand things using context reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. In that, the protagonist is in Madrid for a poetry fellowship, and his Spanish is at a level such that every sentence spools out a new set of possible meanings. A woman confides in him, but he is not sure if her dad died when she was a child, or whether her father’s death made her feel like a child again… that sort of thing. “It was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords.” I loved that description. But maybe it brings us to the next book you’d like to recommend, which is short fiction written wholly in Spanish.

Yes, this is written by a friend of mine, Olly Richards.

This is the man behind the popular blog: I Will Teach You A Language.

What I like about this book is that Olly tried to come up with genuine, real world dialogue. Because one issue I have with a lot of course books is that it can feel extremely artificial. I used one audio course that tried to teach me a language using all this business terminology. It was all about ‘my wife and my secretary,’ and at the time I didn’t have a wife, I didn’t have a secretary. It just felt so irrelevant to me that the conversation felt bland.

What Olly did in these books is he really tried to make the conversations realistic in terms of what people are more likely to use as beginners. And then, of course, use those stories as a way of teaching the language. So you have both the context of the realistic, actual Spanish you’re likely to come across, while also getting a bit of hand holding in terms of learning how the language works.

Lovely. Olly also has a collection of stories aimed at intermediate learners, which might offer a useful step up for those who have been learning Spanish for a while. The next book to discuss is Mastering Spanish Vocabulary. This book has 13,000 entries, also comes with audio files. Why did you pick this vocab book in particular, and how much time do you suggest that people spend memorizing new vocabulary?

So a book like this is definitely not the kind of book you want to read start to finish. It is essentially just a list of words. But the power of this book is if you have certain conversations you know that you’re likely to have, then you can flick ahead to that category.

This has been great for me. I used an earlier print of this very book when I first moved to Spain, a few months into my project when, for instance, I needed to find a new flat. Then, I went to the accommodation section, and saw a very simple list of all the words related to what I would need to know in terms of floor space, and how high the rent would be. So: just words like ‘rent,’ and ‘apartment,’ and ‘door,’ and so on. It’s better than a dictionary, because they’re all collected by category, and won’t overwhelm people with the amount of words that they don’t know.

Okay, yes. So you can cram beforehand, when you know in advance that specific scenarios are about to arise.

Based on your background, there are certain words you’re going to need more than others. As an engineer, my first job in Spain was related to engineering. So I needed to know technical words a lot quicker than I needed to know, for instance, the names of countries. On a generic list of vocabulary, you tend to hear what the translation of country names are a lot faster than you would technical words for parts of a computer. That makes sense for the vast majority of people, but your particular case is going to be different to somebody else’s. Each individual needs to learn the vocabulary that’s relevant to them. I needed to learn how to talk about my travels, I needed to learn how to talk about Ireland in particular, I needed to talk about technical things related to my job.

Again, as a beginner, you don’t want to be worrying too much about grammar. It’s fine if you’re choppily saying stuff like: ‘Supermarket, where?’ instead of piecing together a perfect sentence. You can do so much more with more words, and that’s why a book like this can be so helpful.

Got it. This is coming back to your point about communication being top priority. And I assume that the same reasoning feeds into your final choice, the Lonely Planet Phrasebook and Dictionary?

Yes. Like Olly gives you the conversational language you’re likely to use in many scenarios, this is specifically a collection of pre-made questions that you’re likely to ask, and pre-made answers you’ll hear in response. So it’s not necessarily conversations, but those initial bursts when you want to form a full sentence.

Let’s say, there are certain things that you know you’re going to ask, so rather than say, ‘Bathroom, where?’ you can learn the phrase, ‘Where is the bathroom?’ because that’s something that you ask regularly enough. Instead of learning the grammatical process behind that, you can just take the entire phrase like it’s one chunk of information, and learn that phrase. This phrasebook is essentially a list of all of these phrases that travellers tended to need a lot, and there is a lot of overlap between travel-related phrases and phrases you’re likely to use in other situations—say, if you are learning Spanish to speak to a Spanish-speaking family member.

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People can learn these phrases without needing to understand the complexity of the grammar behind them. Because even if you don’t yet understand the difference between ‘is,’ ‘be,’ and ‘are,’ or whether it’s in the first, second or third person, you can still learn the phrase, ‘Where is the supermarket?’ and say it off the cuff, and be confident it’s a grammatically correct sentence.

Whenever I travel to a country, the first thing I do is pick up one of these phrasebooks, because that way I can just learn full phrases for the absolute essentials. I can say things, I can communicate, I can see what their likely replies are going to be in those scenarios.

Yes, I understand. It’s interesting, because you have a very different take to Harry Mount, who recommended the best books for learning Latin, but I think necessarily so. Spanish is a living language, and most beginner language learners will be focussed on the conversational elements—on comprehension and making themselves understood. But at what stage do you find you need to invest time in learning grammar? Or does that tends to fall into place by itself, with enough practice?

One of the reasons I didn’t recommend books that are grammar-heavy is not necessarily because I am anti-grammar. It’s more the case that I’m presuming that the people who are seeking this kind of advice are beginners, and I highly, highly recommend beginners do not put a lot of time into grammar. With that being said, when you have that momentum in the language and you reach a certain level, an intermediate level where people can talk to you if they’re patient and you can actually have quite a lot of conversations—that‘s the point where grammar becomes very useful.

And it’s not just useful, then, but interesting. Because here’s the thing: if I gave you a random grammatical explanation about Spanish and you have just started to learn it, it’s got nothing for you to attach it to. It’ll go in one ear, out the other, it’s not interesting.

“I highly, highly recommend beginners do not put a lot of time into grammar”

Whereas if you’ve already learned Spanish for quite a while and can say lot, you just don’t really understand the logic, when I explain a rule, it’s like a light bulb goes off in your head. You’re like, ‘That‘s why they say it that way.’ That extra bit of context makes it interesting, and that makes it more fun to learn, because you’re filling in the gaps when you already have a lot of language to fill with.

Getting grammar first is like getting the blueprints of a house when you don’t have any materials to build with, you know? I do like grammar-heavy books, but only as an intermediate learner. At that stage, I have enough enough vocabulary, I have enough practice, I’m able to communicate—I’m just not able to communicate in a sophisticated-sounding way. It’s time to tidy things up. You don’t tidy an empty house, you know?

That makes sense, thanks. Personally, I love grammar. It reminds me of algebra or logic—learning rules and applying them. Very satisfying. But I struggle to recall it later. Probably because, like you say, I’ve been doing it too early in the language-learning process. Finally, what place does everyday conversation, and perhaps more importantly, immersion in a culture play in reaching the highest levels of proficiency?

Well, it really depends on what the goals you have for that language. When people imagine high levels of proficiency, I think they imagine working professionally in the language, which is absolutely great. So, for instance, I have a C2 diploma in Spanish. This is given by the Instituto Cervantes, and is the highest level of mastery that you can get in a language from this institution. So I can work as a professional engineer in Spanish, and that’s great. I had to work very hard and put a lot of effort into that.

But, realistically, at the level I was before that—let’s say the B2 level on the European scale—I was socially equivalent. I could go hang out in the pub with my mates, and talk about everything in Spanish like I would in English. That’s not the mastery level, but that’s actually more than enough for what a lot of people need. Most people don’t need to work as a professional in their new language; they just want to have a social equivalency in the language. That’s why I would tend to have that as an ultimate goal for most people, because maybe, yes, you want to be bilingual, have perfect equivalency, and do everything that you can do in English, but we don’t really need to do everything in a second language that we need to do in English.

“Most people don’t need to work as a professional in their new language; they just want to have a social equivalency”

Sometimes we just need to have an active social life, and that is an absolutely worthy end goal that you can reach realistically in the space of a year—less, if you’re doing it intensively. And this is where I like to go with these languages.

When it comes to attaining a level of mastery, at that stage getting exposure in conversation doesn’t really help you. There’s only a certain point you’ll get to with conversation, it’s not going to help you to refine your edges. In that case, my advice isn’t special. I would just say: ‘You’ve got to study.’ because there’s nothing magical and there’s no shortcuts at this stage. It’s just putting in the hard work of refining those edges.

But you can get to the conversational stage in a lot of fun and interesting ways, and that’s why I like to advise people to have a dynamic learning approach. So: conversational practice as early as possible, and that’ll get you to the conversational stage. If you want to be able to read in Spanish too, you’ve got to change up your methodology and your entire approach. Have more reading incorporated, and maybe do some more academic things. Conversation is great, but that’s not the be all, end all of language learning.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Benny Lewis

Benny Lewis is an Irish writer and polyglot who is best known for his website Fluent in 3 Months, on which he documents personal attempts to learn languages within short time periods. He is the author of five books, including Language Hacking Spanisha book aimed at those beginning to learn Spanish.

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Benny Lewis

Benny Lewis is an Irish writer and polyglot who is best known for his website Fluent in 3 Months, on which he documents personal attempts to learn languages within short time periods. He is the author of five books, including Language Hacking Spanisha book aimed at those beginning to learn Spanish.