New Language Starter Kit


Starting a new language can be daunting, so a real desire for that language is essential. The journey is long, but it does not have to be an uphill sprint – not at all – and there’s plenty of small achievements on the way to fluency. There’s infinite resources you can use, some of which are all about speed and mastery, but feel free to sift through some of it and see what works for you.

I want to share the ‘starter kit’ I accumulated for Spanish – I did not start Spanish quickly, or expertly, but I love this language. I am British but growing up with US news and culture has made me more and more aware of Latin American culture and its important role in the States. Additionally, we are not far from Spain and I have met many lovely Spanish people. This little kernel of genuine interest has kept me going.

You do not have to feel motivated every day of the week or every week of the year but if you want to speak the language, you will absolutely get there. Here’s how it began for me:

1. Duolingo

It’s free, it’s popular, it gives you shiny rewards and it does not judge you! There are some very heavy users of Duolingo out there, but my attitude to Spanish was pretty relaxed. For starters, my daily goal was at the lowest setting. Rather than going for speed, I went slowly and did a ton of revision sessions (to keep the lesson badges ‘gold’). From a base of zero Spanish knowledge, I finished the course in about a year – but I still had many questions.

Duolingo is not the perfect teacher, but the forums can be supportive, and it has proven to thousands of people the old ‘dripping water hollows out stone’ saying: five minutes a day will get you there.

2. Memrise

I switched to Memrise after finishing Duolingo: it’s a British language app which has many courses, and it focuses on old-school useful language phrases. It is well structured and goes through greetings, numbers, essential vocabulary for travel etc. It is a good compliment to Duolingo, the content of which can seem quite random. It also allows you to learn Castilian Spanish (Spanish of central Spain), whereas Duolingo favours Spanish from the Americas (fair enough).

3. Coffee Break Languages

Structure! At last! The Coffee Break Spanish podcast started back in 2006 (when people downloaded them by plugging in their iPods) and it has 4 seasons from beginner to advanced. (Other languages now available). I love it because of the friendly format, the listening practice, the grammar tips and really helpful explanations from a teacher who has been in the game a long time. There is no replacing expertise. If you find the first few episodes too slow or elementary, go browse the episodes on their website to find the best place for you to start.

4. Tutoring

Here we go: I found an online tutor – through iTalki, but there are others out there. If you find the right person, it is so helpful to have a personalised lesson. Ideally you should see a real teacher after a few months of learning because they can correct you and flip around some bad habits.

5. Mingling

If you live in or near a major city, get on Google and find a language exchange group – I’ve done language meet ups where people just go to a coffee shop or bar to have a drink, meet new people and practice languages. Try and also get a ‘tandem partner’, someone who you can see regularly to swap your languages! It is really motivating to practice face to face.

6. The Classroom

After all of this, the most effective way to learn a language really is in a classroom. I started evening courses at the beginning of the year, and it has been fun and I have seen so much progress in my Spanish – I have managed to reach an A2-B1 level so far (language level explanation here). I had the same breakthrough when I revitalised my school-level German.

While a classroom is – in my experience – the best place to get to intermediate and from intermediate to advanced, time and motivation are the most important factors for reaching your goal. It is better to be a motivated independent learner than it is to be a 14 year old who never does the homework.

I have finished my schooling but for some reason I went looking for more homework –  and you know what? I love it.


Don’t know what to read auf Deutsch?


I started reading in German a couple of years ago, and with each book it gets easier. You acquire vocabulary of course, but once I had one or two novels under my belt I felt more relaxed, confident and better able to properly lose myself in the fiction.

As mentioned before, if you are beginner-intermediate, you can totally start with translations of your favourite children’s books – I started with Lemony Snicket and Harry Potter about a year before I began with adult fiction.

Here are three modern books I loved and can recommend – they have a lot of dialogue, which makes them much easier to follow:

Tschick, Wolfgang Herrndorf
This is a kids/YA book which is also a movie so a really great place for a B1-B2 learner to start. Two outcast tweens take an impromptu road trip at the start of the summer vacation: Maik, who has an unhappy home life, and the mysterious Russian kid known as ‘Tschick’.

Und dann steht einer auf und öffnet das Fenster, Susann Pasztor
Fred, a single dad with a troubled 13 year old son, has trained as a volunteer companion to the dying and finds a challenge in his first assignment – the inscrutable Karla. When Fred manages to torpedo a tenuous friendship with Karla, son Phil provides a link between these three lonely souls. Odd couple tearjerkers, anyone?

Wende, Eva Ladipo
A political thriller from a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung journalist. The protagonist, René, has a successful career in the nuclear power sector until public opinion ruins the company. On top of that, one of his colleagues commits suicide. René, who comes from a poor family in East Germany, grabs a new opportunity from a mysterious older woman, Anna, and finds himself leaving Frankfurt for a swish job in London. What kind of secrets does Anna have in her past? And was it really suicide?

Time travel in Spanish!

Netflix will soon open their first European production hub in Spain, dedicated to producing original content. The current Spanish-language options – the ones found on Netflix UK – are pretty limited, although some are big hits. These include the heist show Casa de Papel (Money Heist), about a bank robbery going wrong, as well as the syrupy-sweet period drama Chicas del Cable (Cable Girls), about 1920s telephone operators.

I did not stick with those shows very long, but the bank heist premise could be kind of fun and Chicas del Cable could be a Downtown Abbey stand-in – maybe try them out if you haven’t already. What I would recommend is the bonkers Spanish TV show El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time). Two seasons were made for the broadcaster RTVE, and the final third season moved to Netflix.

Image: Radiotelevisión Española

It turns out that Spain has a secret ministry which controls a series of portals in time, which have been guarded by dedicated civil servants (!) for centuries. It is like watching a Doctor Who for adults, except the TARDIS can only go backwards. The heroes (a trio assembled from the 16th, 19th, and 21st centuries) get assigned different tasks in each episode, such as saving the life of a Spanish Shakespeare (Lope de Vega).

The characters feel like actual humans, the stories are lots of fun, and I am even being forced to learn a tiny bit of Spanish history. I also appreciate a show in which they use Spain-Spanish, so I can balance it out with all the Latin American Spanish resources. I am more likely to need or use the Spanish of Spain, but of course we should all be aware of both.

Also this week I have been listening to season 3 of the podcast series Coffee Break Spanish. It is a step up from season 1-2 beginner level and involves more listening practice aimed at an A2-B1 level. I love the Scottish presenter Mark, he is a talented linguist, teacher and all-round language nerd. The season 3 song/jingle is dorky as hell but will put a smile on your face, I promise.

True Immersion


Last Christmas, my sister gave me an English-Italian book: it was written by an American author – in Italian – and translated back into English; both versions are presented side by side. Jhumpa Lahiri, who many years ago was caught by the inexplicable urge to know Italian inside and out, did not live in Italy or learn the language until adulthood – she relied on snatches of tuition and laborious self-study in the States.

Eventually Lahiri made the decision to move her family to Rome and write exclusively in Italian. The result is In Other Words, a rumination not just on the Italian language, but on writing, the art of expression, and the struggle in finding one’s voice. It is also a glimpse into one woman’s – understandable – obsession.

We get to learn about some of her simple daily struggles to be understood in Rome, but I most related to her attempt to explain the compulsion to adopt another language, take those imperfect foundations, and nurture it into something else with which you can express yourself. The second language – if learned as an adult – will most likely be the weird cousin to your mother tongue, coming from the same mind but producing decidedly different and mixed results. This is the start of one woman’s journey to untangle her Italian and use it in a way which is readable, and slightly wonky, but all her own creation. It is a real inspiration.

6 Podcasts for Language Nerds


  1. Coffee Break Languages
    A well-established series covering major European languages as well as Chinese. The format puts a learner alongside the teacher and concentrates on useful phrases as well as speaking confidence and key grammar points. Great stuff.
  2. The Fluent Show
    The German presenter Kerstin, based in Britain, has interesting guests from the world of languages to get the perspectives of both teachers and students. Chill chat for anyone interested in languages.
  3. Duolingo Spanish Podcast
    If you’re a beginner to intermediate Spanish learner, this is a brilliant tool for practising your listening skills. You can revise the different past tenses and hear interesting real-life stories from Central and South America.
  4. Rough Translation
    This is a fantastic NPR podcast which showcases projects from international correspondents, delivering interesting stories from around the world. The first one I heard was about a surprising change which took place on an Argentinian talk-show.
  5. The Europeans
    The show is presented by two Brits – a reporter working in Paris and opera singer living in Amsterdam – who tackle European news and culture with humour and heart. One of their interviews was with the poor people who work as Trump’s interpreters for German television, and the struggle to translate his unexpected language.
  6. The Allusionist
    Have I snuck an etymology podcast into this list? Yes. Yes I have. There’s a fabulous episode on the Rosetta Stone, another on the Welsh-speaking part of Argentina, and another on a made up language (Toki Pona).