Tips to Help You Learn a Second Language

Hablas Ingles?

Yo hablo Ingles.

These were two of my ‘go to’ phrases that I commonly used during the first few months after our recent move to Madrid.

I was mortified to speak to anyone in public. I would make my husband ask questions, order food for me, or would avoid places (like the deli or the local butcher) because of fear of becoming tongue tied.

I thought that I would have an easier time learning the language. Ha! Why would I think that, considering that I learned French in school? All I knew was the very very basics–hola! Agua, por favor. Adios! The joke was on me because it’s true what they say, “The older you are, the tougher it is to learn a language.” I was stuck in this Spanglish limbo. I speak English at work and I speak English at home. My friends are mostly American expats who also speak English, or if they are Spanish then they only speak in English with me. No wonder I was having a hard time!

There was no way that I was going to learn Spanish without going the extra mile and putting in the work each day.

An uber driver once said to me, “If you are going to live in Espana then you will need to learn the language.” Now, I know that sounds a little condescending, but I promise he was not. He was right though. If I wanted to learn the language, I needed to stop relying on everyone else and stop asking ‘Hablas ingles?’ “Do you speak english?” 

It wasn’t until I asked my 3-year-old how to say something in Spanish (she’s in full immersion at school) that I knew that I needed to buckle down and start making an effort. So I’ve made it a priority to learn a second language. It’s been a little over a month now, and slowly I’ve been able to see a difference. I’m understanding what others are saying, my vocabulary is increasing, and I’m more confident to ask questions without the help of my husband. Yay, progress!

So what worked for me? A program called Duolingo. Here is some information about this language program, as well as suggestions for other ways to help those wanting to learn a second language.


A free app that focuses heavily on vocabulary and repetition. This app allows you to practice your speaking, listening, and writing skills no matter where you are. 

Watch TV with subtitles

You can watch TV in your native language with Spanish subtitles (or other language) OR watch your television programs in the language that you are learning with English subtitles.


This program is not free but offers a free 7-day trial. This program allows you to learn a new language while watching music videos, movie trailers, and the news. 

Read books, newspapers, and magazines in the language that you are learning.

Highlight or write down words that you don’t understand. Focus on these words, look up their translation, and go back and reread the item.   

Pro tip – Read a book in another language that you’ve already read before so you are familiar with the story.


Write the names of common items in your home, at the office, or even in the car. Place the post-its on the items and when using the said items, recite the word out loud. Learning vocab first is extremely helpful when learning a language.

Set a schedule

Pick a time during each day that you have free and practice for 20-30 minutes. Set a timer on your phone or add it to your calendar so it becomes a routine.                                                                               

Make it fun – Give yourself a reward at the end of the week (or month) if you stuck to the program each day. This could be something as simple as a sweet treat or something larger like a pedicure.

Setting your phone’s interface to your target language

This one can definitely take you out of your comfort zone but is extremely useful…so I hear. Confession: I have been too chicken to try this one (oops!). By changing the target language you are forced to use only this language each time that you pick up your phone.

Conversation exchange penpal

This allows you to have an actual conversation with someone that speaks your target language in the comforts of your home. Be able to practice writing and reading in another language by communicating with a pen pal. This is another one that I have not tried but have a lot of friends who have and really like it. Some are uncomfortable meeting up with a complete stranger so they use this pen pal form to find someone to write to or even chat with online.

Listen to music  

Go on to YouTube or Spotify and search for music in the language area that you’re studying. Find a song that you like? Look up the lyrics online and translate any words that you don’t know.

Last but not least, get into the dating scene

I’m married so obviously I can’t take part in this one, but apparently it is the #1 way to learn a new language. If you’re single, perhaps this one should be at the top of your list!


Mary, a native of Rockford, Illinois, attended DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois where she received her BA in Secondary Art Education. In 2007, she moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa after accepting a position as a high school visual arts teacher with the Cedar Rapids Community School District. She and her husband, Collin, who is a teacher in the Iowa City Community School District, reside in Cedar Rapids with their daughters, Zoey and Munroe. Zoey is five and Munroe will be turning one in October 2016. In addition to being a full time mommy, full time teacher, and writer for the mom’s blog, she is also a professional artist who has shown and published works both nationally and internationally. Mary enjoys traveling, painting, and most of all, spending time with her family.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.