Before our family left for Central America, I was determined to have us get a jump start on learning Spanish. The trick is we live in white, rural Maine–not Los Angeles–so there was no turning to adult-ed classes, or a Spanish-immersion elementary school around the corner. I also wasn’t willing to break the bank by hiring private tutors. Our remaining option: studying español at home with me, a non-Spanish speaker, leading the show. Yikes!

As messy as that may sound, a year later when we arrived in Guatemela, we were able to navigate bus schedules in Spanish, ask for directions on the street, order food at restaurants, and even talk basic politics, all from our Spanish self study at home. Here’s how we did it.

Free Spanish Lessons for Adults

After a good deal of research online, I set up a basic program for myself. Every day, I spent at least 15 minutes listening to a Spanish-learning podcast, Coffee Break Español, which–importantly–I could do while walking, jogging, or even cleaning the house. Hosted by two Scots with delightful, lilting accents and a logical progression of lessons, this free podcast became the basis of my Spanish learning. I’m more of a visual learner, so I had my doubts about studying via audio, but I ended up loving these podcasts, in part because the hosts constantly cued me to speak. No doubt I kept my neighbors amused as I went jogging by their houses mumbling to myself in Spanish.

Still eager to do at least a little bit of Spanish learning in writing, I started using the free online language learning program, Duolingo. Though the podcasts remained my mainstay, I found Duolingo helpful in building my vocabulary. And for a short while, I attended my local library’s weekly Spanish lunch table.

At the end of a year, my 15 minutes of Spanish a day meant I had clocked more than 70 hours of podcast lessons, as well as some Duolingo time. The result: I was by no means fluent, but I felt confident in my ability to communicate in Spanish from day one when we arrived in Central America.

Teaching Spanish to Kids

Teaching my kids Spanish felt like more of a hoax. Children learn languages best through interaction, and given that I was the primary person they would engage with in Spanish, I needed some good tools.

Our greatest find was, yet again, free–a television show for young children developed by Georgia Public Broadcasting called Salsa. In a series of 15-20 minute episodes, the main character–an animated gecko– led viewers through familiar stories. The first few episodes featured Godilocks and the Three Bears. What I loved about this show was that it was all in Spanish. Yes, you’d be surprised by how many children’s Spanish-learning videos and other materials contain more English than Spanish. Salsa also wasn’t afraid to use what kids love most–repetition–but even I stayed engaged.

Over summer break, the kids and I watched one of these episodes at least a few times a week and then we acted out what we had watched in Spanish with their stuffed animals. Our first few reenactments were spare on words, given our vocabulary, but we quickly got better. I found the accompanying PDF transcripts and activities designed for classroom teachers who don’t necessarily know Spanish (ie. me) to be hugely helpful.

The kids and I also used a few singing and rhyming children’s CDs, including Hop, Skip and Sing Spanish for Kids and De Colores,  as well as Spanish picture books from our wonderful public library. Once the school year got started, all we really managed was squeezing in an episode or two of Salsa every week, but by the end of the year, we had viewed two seasons worth of episodes, and the kids were off to a good start.

Going Live: Spanish with a Latin American Teacher

After our year of self study, we were ready to take our Spanish to the next level and we attended a Spanish language school in Guatemala. The experience was amazing–I’ll dedicate a future post to language schools in Latin America–but for those who cannot afford to leave the U.S., many schools now offer very affordable one-on-one Spanish Skype lessons online.

Spanish-Learning Resources That Don’t Require International Travel

Here’s a complete list of affordable Spanish-Learning resources that our family has either used, or that we hope to try. All can be used from the comfort of your home or–at least in urban areas–somewhere nearby:


  • Spanish tables or conversation groups–most communities have free, at-least-weekly Spanish tables or conversation groups gathering at local libraries, universities, or bookstores. Ask your public librarian or adult-ed office to help you locate a group.
  • Adult-education Spanish classes–offered through many towns, adult-ed classes are generally affordable and, importantly, offer a real-live teacher to keep you disciplined.
  • Duolingo–a free, online language learning program, not just for Spanish. After a quick pre-test, Duolingo adjusts to your individual level, and cues you to speak, write, and read in the new language.
  • Podcasts–a wonderful option for folks pressed for time, given that you can learn while driving, exercising, or doing chores.
    • I started out with Coffee Break Español, seasons 1 and 2, designed for beginners. Aside from the fact that I had a hard time keeping up with all of their verb tenses and conjugations, this program could not have been better.
    • I then graduated over to the same program’s third season, Show Time Spanish, which is designed for intermediates. I loved the program’s telenovela stories, which appeared every five episodes or so, but found myself looking for something new during the other episodes, which sometimes relied too heavily on English.
    • I am now using Notes in Spanish, a great intermediate option, packed full of conversation about a variety of topics, ranging from solar panels to Spanish movies and holiday traditions.
    • I have heard good things about News in Slow Spanish and hope to check it out soon.
  • Online Skype lessons–many Spanish schools in Latin America now offer affordable, one-on-one lessons online.


  • Salsa–This is Georgia Public Television’s wonderful television show for early-elementary Spanish learners. We loved it!
  • Books and CDs–See what’s available at your local library. We enjoyed Hop, Skip and Sing Spanish for Kids and De Colores. Your library may also offer a story hour in Spanish.

Finally, consider approaching your children’s elementary school about offering Spanish or another language to all students. The best time to learn a new language is early childhood, so if you want to promote multi-lingualism in your community, a great place to begin your campaign is at your local elementary school!