Towards the free and open way of learning Spanish

Practice is the best way to learn a language. But of course. You don't need a school to practice, but still, my school English got me started. Now I'm starting at zero with Spanish, and I wonder how to do that. So here, I explore the best available tools. As usual for an open source enthusiast, I try to find free and open tools for it. Where unavailable, I'm content with just gratis tools for now ๐Ÿ˜€

As for learning style, I like self-study for the very basics and daily real-world practice beyond. I abhor educational course materials with conversations … the slow speaking makes me feel even more dumb than not understanding a word. So below, I focus on basics to learn by heart for bootstrapping and on real-world content beyond.

Goal Definition

Let's start with my modest set of goals for now:

  • Pronunciation.
  • Basic everyday conversations. Means, about everything that is not philosophy, rocket science or otherwise highly technical or complex.
  • Following conversations. Getting the meaning when following native speakers' conversations and talks in normal speed.
  • Computer aided reading. Understanding plain every text when reading it in the foreign languge, but it's ok to do so with software support at word level.
  • No focus on writing, though. It's the least required skill for cultural immersion. In my case I have English as my default language for writing, and need to keep it up or I would unlearn it.

Bootstrapping Toolkit

An intensive self-taught course to get you started with Spanish from scratch. This bootstrapping phase should not consume more than 150 hours, that's half way of what would make you reasonably fluent in Spanish for example [source]. In contrast to the "practice and refining phase" which is about learning alongside use, the bootstrapping is really work. Let's get used to the fact ๐Ÿ˜‰ And see this Guide to learn languages [by yourself] for a successful training style and motivation management.

  1. Complete course. Choose according to your taste:
    1. ProSpanish course. Taste differs, and I found this one to be highly effective and relevant from the first word on to achieve fast results for speaking Spanish, as it teaches you basic sentence structure by example. (While the FSI courses below are a more traditional / school type version going through situations etc.). Also I found the ProSpanish course to be very "friendly" and patient, I really like to listen to it. It is however way shorter than the FSI course (about 3 hours compared to 30-40 hours), but might teach you enough for this "bootstrapping level" already.
    2. FSI Spanish Courses. Public domain and available online as both text and audio. This is esp. awesome as these are recommended as the best material in the "How to Learn Any Language" site [source], and they know what they're talking. Following a course is very convenient and you will not need most of the other things in this list. But some folks, including me, do not like courses (feels too much like school …). For these, the other items in this list are sufficient: learn some words and phrases, look up some grammar, then start consuming easy real-world content.
  2. Pronunciation. Spanish is said to be among the world's most phonetic languages: If you have the spelling, you can pronounce the word. How to learn the rules for that?
    • Spanish for Dummies: Vowels and Consonants. Two videos with the most concise and understandable presentation of Spanish pronunciation that I could find. Keep listening to them, and you'll know …
    • WordsGalore audio vocabulary. The best way to learn Spanish pronunciation that I could find so far. WordsGalore is a gratis (yet not free) vocabulary trainer software with the special feature that you can just scroll through its word list very fast, and it will speak the selected Spanish word. This way, I was able to infer the pronunciation rules from the examples in half an hour, while at the same time training pronunciation and memorizing the rules by example rather than in abstract form. See also my post on the WordsGalore installation instructions for Linux.
    • Spanish Pronunciation Lessons.
    • Mightyverse. Thousands of native speaker videos for pronouncing words, phrases and short texts. Indeed, watching people speak is another thing than just knowing the rules.
  3. Grammar cheatsheet. What I want is just a 2 page A4 grammar to fix above your monitor when instant messaging, e-mailing or writing in Spanish, and to learn by heart that way. I have not found a good free one, so I created this open content Spanish Grammar Cheatsheet (source here). Corrections to me, please!
  4. 1000 words. Learning the 1000 most frequent words makes you understand 88% of oral Spanish [source]. However: It's no good to learn more than these in list style (it does not work that way). Instead, start learning by example after that – see the other toolkit below. I also found that it makes the most sense to only learn the "production" direction: see the English word, say the Spanish one. It's the difficult direction, but you need it to speak, and it implies the other one. Options where to get the word list, by adequacy:
  5. 250 conversation phrases. Modules of daily conversation, to learn by heart and construct sentences with. Because grammar and single words do not help to create real-life sentences (want a funny illustration? see message 64).
    • Create your own list. I did not find a list that's really about the most useful phrases and sentence modules, so I'm compiling my own and will publish it here.
    • SpanishDict Phrasebook. 8000 phrases already – but the problem is, there's no help narrowing this down to the 250 most relevant ones.
    • WordsGalore: 1100 Spanish-English Phrases. Great list of short sentence building blocks. Gratis but not free.
  6. Desktop vocabulary and phrases trainer. There are several options of course. Here is my list of desktop vocabulary software for Linux, ordered by my own subjective evaluation (the best first):
    • Mnemosyne. Very very nice, free and open source software. You can add sound, images, videos etc. to question and answer sections, and it has a sophisticated algorithm to not waste your time on words you know. There's even an Android application for training; see below. See also my post on installation instructions for Ubuntu 12.04. Vocabulary card files for Spanish words and phrases are available via its old site; I propose to use the following:
    • Parley.A sophisticated vocabulary trainer application for KDE4, free and open source. Includes the option of playing sound files for the pronunciation when doing the flash card testing. Available in the Ubuntu archives. What got on my nerves however was the inefficient way it asked me for words I knew, so I chose Mnemosyne over it. Recommendations of word lists for it:
    • WordsGalore. A gratis (yet not free) software that comes with a vocabulary of the 1000 most frequent Spanish words (it's CC licensed now, see above). I missed a "ask the Spanish word" mode in this. For installation on Linux, see my instructions.
    • KWordQuiz. Also nice. Shares the same XML format with Parley, with a bit less featured interface (like, no lesson grouping for words).
    • granule. Quite nice and usable, including sound file support for pronunciation. However, unlike Parley it seems to be no longer in active development. Version 1.3.0 is available in the Ubuntu archives, but version 1.4.0 is already out.
    • OpenTeacher. I did not test this; yet it seems to have no support for attaching audio files for the word pronunciations.
    • KVocTrain. Vocabulary trainer application for KDE3. I used it in 2000 and contributed the first vocabulary file to it ๐Ÿ™‚ Now it is superseded by Parley or KWordQuiz for KDE4.
    • Even more options. A German article listing even more Linux vocabulary trainer applications.
  7. Smartphone vocabulary and phrases trainer. I'd like to have an Android application that I can feed these 1000 words and 250 phrases into, for training in them whenever there's a spot of free time to do so. Proposals, as per my own evaluation:
    1. Mnemogogo and Mnemododo. An Android application and plugin for Mnemosyne (recommended above) to learn the vocabulary and phrases on the phone.
  8. Language basics material. Something to help learn and combine the above pieces. By adequacy:

Practice and Refining Toolkit

Once beyond the basics, I like to learn a language "effortlessly" while using it rather than as a dedicated activity. Here are tools to help with real-world content while refining pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar:

  1. Talk to a native speaker. The most fun and awesome way to learn a language. Either you are really lucky and have a patient native speaker friend. If not, you could go straight for an immersion experience. Or to, where nice native speakers are up for video-teaching you for $5 (for Spanish: uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete … and many more).
  2. Content for practice. Not using a language in daily life makes you forget it again. In my case, I practice English by writing everything in it, but could consume content in Spanish. Just some stuff that I find interesting; only real-world content, no educational resources any more:
    1. Textual content. For example, read Google News in Spanish.
    2. Audio content.
    3. Video content. When using subtitled video content, I found it a good idea to progress from videos with English audio / Spanish subs to those with Spanish audio / English subs to those with Spanish audio / Spanish subs (the latter at first when watching a second time).
      • Of course there are thousands of videos on YouTube, with and without subtitles. You can download the videos for offline use with an open source tool like youtube-dl, and you can download the subtitles with various open source tools.
      • You can watch full movies online with added subtitles, at You can watch English full movies with Spanish subs and vice versaThey use their free & open source Amara software. It is not clear to me so far if the subtitles themselves are open content (see here vs. here). For offline use, again download the video with youtube-dl and the subtitles from by clicking on the required language in the left-hand list ad selecting the "Download" button. Then play both together, for example in VLC: with the subtitles in SRT, SSA or TTML format, go to "Media -> Open (advanced) …", select your video, and and use the "Use a subtitles file" additional option to add the subtitles.
      • You can download free & open subtitles for movies you own at and watch both together (see last paragraph for instructions).
  3. Translator browser plugin. It has to be high-usability. I would suggest it has a mouse over mode that is active when pressing a dedicated modifier (like the Windows key, sitting quite lonely on the Linux machine keyboard here). The translator also should be capable of interlinear translation, displaying the translated words above the original ones in a separate line; that's even more comfortable for texts with lots of new words. By adequacy:
    • Hyper Translate Plugin for Firefox. It translates selected text in a tooltip, whether single words or whole phrases. The most comfortable tool I could find, if you configure it so that it translates single words on double clicks and phrases when selecting them and pressing "Ctrl". Also, this works really fast. However, it seems to me that this plugin (in the version from mid 2012-08) has a huge memory leak, so I have to re-start Firefox from time to time to not run out of RAM. But I have to investigate further if it's really this plugin …
    • Wiktionary and Google Translate Plugin for Firefox. Double-click a word (or for hyperlinked words, use the context menu) to translate it. Also can be configured to use a mouse over mode (using a modifier key), but that mode is not really usable for switching between words to lookup, as the lookup itself is quite slow and the popup closes only when configured so and when the mouse is at least ca. 3 cm from it. Also, this cannot inline-translate whole phrases, so takes more work when not understanding a complete sentence (and you don't want to go for whole-page translation by Google, which is available from this). And what's really a nuisance: it always presents you the translation in the first language in which the word is found in on Wiktionary, with no way to configure lookup priorities. On the upside, the word lookup relies on free & open Wiktionary, the translation tooltip contains much information and is freely styleable.
    • Inline Translator Plugin for Firefox. It translates selected text in a tooltip, whether single words or whole phrases. This relies on the proprietary Bing Translate API, and at least it stopped working because the author's account balance for that service ran out.
    • Easy Google Translate Plugin for Firefox. To be tested.
  4. Audio slowdown browser plugin. Something that can speed down the audio or audiovisual playback by a configurable amount, while keeping the pitch of the voice intact. This should enable you to follow regular speed native speakers' material. There's a speed setting on (behind the gear button on all videos), and there's a way to play back with VLC in slower speed in two steps (using the "Arrow Left" key). But this will not keep the voice pitch intact. [TODO – Still to be found.]
  5. Writing assistant. A desktop application both for interactive and non-interactive writing. It should include a grammar checker, spelling checker, accent auto-correction and in-text commands for translating words (like typing "es:occupy", and it converts it to "ocupar").
    • LanguageTool. Open source software for style and grammar checking that is both available as stand-alone and LibreOffice plugin.
    • LibreOffice. For spell checking in non-interactive writing.
  6. Mobile phone dictionary. For Android, as we're about free and open here.
    • QuickDic [here on Google Play]. My current favorite: free and open source, fast, and independent of any Internet connection by offline storage of the dictionaries. It uses Wiktionary data, so has about 40 000 entries.
    • English Spanish Dict.FREE. Gratis but not free; ad-supported with an ad-less pro version available. Also offline, and with the advantage of having 86 000 words.
  7. Extensive online dictionary. Including all the really special and technical words. Should also include pronunciations of the words.
    • SpanishDict Translate. Phrase and word translator, including one million words with very informative output. Gratis but not free.
    • Wiktionary for Spanish. Upside: Free and open. It has ca. 40 000 entries as of 2012-07. Not that many, but a good start.
    • Not to be missed in this context, because it's very useful for exact translation of really special words and phrases. It's based on automatic evaluation of professionally translated texts, like EU laws.
  8. Spanish verb conjugation tool. Options:
  9. Grammar essentials. A ten-page or so short grammar to learn by heart over time. It's not meant to construct sentences (it does not work that way) but to have the basic rules in mind for recognizing them again in real-world examples, thus making the most of the examples you encounter. By adequacy:
  10. Extensive grammar reference. Word of caution on grammars first: open your grammar book only after having made good progress with learning by reading and listening — it will make no sense to you before [source]. There are several out-of-copyright grammars available; you might learn some funny ancient Spanish, but then that's what free and open Spanish sounds like ๐Ÿ˜‰ The following recommendations are mostly from Google Books; they are available as downloadable PDF, but then lack the searchable text from Google's online version. But since it's public domain material, we could add it and re-publish. By adequacy:

 Background Tools and Resources



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