Now that I’ve been here in Panama for a few months, I really wish I’d put more into learning Spanish before I arrived.

Oh, I worked on it, don’t get me wrong. I took three semesters of conversational Spanish at my local community college, and I continued on my own using a couple of different programs. So I’m doing better than many of my expat friends.

I can phone for a taxi. I can mostly understand and make myself understood — sometimes with a lot of hand gestures — when I’m ordering food in a restaurant or buying meat at the butcher counter. I can greet people and ask how they are. I can wish someone a happy birthday.

But put me on a phone with a Spanish speaker and I feel like I’m listening to the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon — it’s all wah, wah, wah. And I can’t really carry on a conversation with my neighbors, despite oodles of good will on both sides, unless their English-speaking daughter is there to translate.

If you want to brush up on your language skills, there are some good programs out there. Everyone learns differently so what works best for me might not be as good for you (and vice versa).

Generally, though, some combination of listening, speaking, reading and writing is necessary. If your goal is to carry on a conversation, you want a program that emphases the listening and speaking.

Here are some I have personal experience with and recommend. (Some of the links are affiliate links. That means if you purchase I’ll earn a small amount. It’s not enough to buy me a mansion, but it does help keep this website going.)


Of all the programs I’ve used, Pimsleur has worked best for me. It’s a completely audio program, so I downloaded it to my iPod and took it with me everywhere.

The Pimsleur method was developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur, an expert in applied linguistics. He discovered a method for moving language learning from short-term to long-term memory. It’s called “graduated interval recall,” and it works for me!

While my three community college semesters laid a good groundwork for things like verb forms and numbers, any ability I have to actually talk to a Spanish speaker comes from my Pimsleur studies.

The Pimsleur method’s emphasis on speaking sets it apart from other computer-based language programs right from the get-go. Starting with Lesson 1 you’ll be saying words and phrases in Spanish.

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Transparent Language

Transparent Language offers a variety of computer-based programs. They have a sweet vocabulary-building tool called BYKI (Before You Know It), which you can also get as an app for your smart phone.

They also offer a fun variety of language learning programs for children. The Kidspeak programs combine interactive games, puzzles and songs with animation and activities to engage your children’s interest and get them started.

For adults, they offer several different programs in lots of different languages. In Spanish, for example, you can get several different online or DVD-based programs.

The Transparent Language programs are built on a two-pronged approach to language learning.

The Declarative memory system learns vocabulary words and short phrases and sentences.

The Procedural memory system learns skills like applying grammar and putting together sentences.

Recently Transparent Language created an online program that puts more emphasis on speaking, with a nifty little recorder that matches your pronunciation against that of a native speaker. They let me try out the program for a month, and I had a lot of fun with that part of it.

Or you can grab the Everywhere Audio course, which you can put on your iPod.

Live Mocha

Live Mocha is a website that offers instruction in 38 different languages. They’ve recently switched their business model so they now charge for even basic instruction in the most popular languages.

Their basic teaching method involves reading and writing to build vocabulary, and they add a strong spoken component. One of the best parts of the program for me was the live critiques. A native speaker listens to the dialog you record and helps you with pronunciation.

Native speakers also correct each other’s written work. In the basic program, you review the work from those studying English while a native Spanish (or French, or whatever) speaker reviews yours. I don’t know how competent these reviews are. (I know if I submitted my English-language writing to a community like that I’d expect to find errors in the feedback.)

There’s also a social aspect to Live Mocha, where you’re able to message or chat with members who speak the language you’re learning.

Whichever program or system you choose, it takes time and work to learn a new language — especially for us older folks. But it’s worth it.

Recently I received a phone call from the Spanish-speaking rep at our local home improvement store. She was calling to let us know our special order was in. I was able to (mostly) understand her, and better still, to respond appropriately. That left me doing the happy dance for the rest of the afternoon.

Do you have a language learning method that’s worked for you? Share it in the Comments.

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  1. I also found The Telenovela Method and Transidiomexpress very useful, the first to start and the second to improve your Spanish. Anyway, traveling alone is your best school.

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