Want to Speak Spanish? This Course Will Take You There… and It’s 100% Free

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Did you know that the best Spanish language course is a completely FREE download?

It’s called FSI Basic Spanish, and it’s an incredibly effective course.

You’ll be speaking Spanish at a very decent level if you complete it.

In fact, I know of no other Spanish course (or app), free or paid, that gets results like FSI Basic Spanish.

People may talk about fancy AI-driven language apps…

But when it comes to cold hard results, this course from the 1960s blows them all out of the water.

Be warned though: this is some serious sh*t. The course material is hard, frustrating, and boring.

But if you can stomach it, you’ll come out of the other side speaking Spanish way better than someone who’s learned Spanish through one of the modern language apps.

FSI Basic Spanish Is Anything but Basic

In fact, it’s the most comprehensive Spanish course around.

It comes with a whopping 59 hours of audio divided over 55 units. The accompanying guide book contains a daunting 2496 pages.

The course’s audio drills are some of the best I’ve ever come across, if not the best. They prepare you to think and answer fast in Spanish, both skills that you need to converse at a good level.

Some of the exercises are translation drills —where you have to translate English to Spanish— but most of the drills only use Spanish… and they quickly teach you the subtleties of the Spanish language.

But here’s the thing:

They’re not easy to get through.

The speakers speak at a natural pace, which means fast. But this is how you get used to how native speakers speak.

I’ve Used FSI Basic Spanish Myself to Great Success

When I had to learn Spanish, I used FSI Basic Spanish as my primary learning resource.

I was taking a trip to Costa Rica in about six months, but I didn’t even know three Spanish words!

I had my work cut out. So much so that some days I studied for 4+ hours.

It wasn’t wasted time, though.

The course did its job and really prepared me to speak Spanish.

When my plane landed in San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica), I was well-equipped to speak and understand most Spanish.

I conversed with the cab driver —who picked me up at the airport— without too many problems.

He was the first person I ever had a conversation in Spanish with.

We talked about the country and how, in his eyes, it was in a bad state and getting worse. He advised me to practice caution wherever I went.

After we finished the conversation, I was surprised and relieved that I could actually converse in Spanish.

The FSI drills had done their work…

The Big Caveats of FSI Basic Spanish

FSI Basic Spanish is a course that will get you fantastic results…

But only if you’re able to work with it.

You see, the course is old…

The Foreign Service Institute created it in the 1960s to teach Spanish to US diplomats. You can’t expect it to be all polished and shiny.

Here are the drawbacks that come with the age of the course:

  • The audio quality is often poor, and it’s sometimes hard to understand native speakers.
  • The language used in the course is dated, which isn’t surprising given the time in which the course was created. There’s also quite a bit of sexist language that could put some people off.
  • The diplomats were put on a Spartan-like regime to learn Spanish fast, hence the effective but challenging drills that can get extremely boring.
  • Because of the difficulty of the course, it may not be your best bet if you’re an absolute beginner.
  • The accompanying study book has complicated grammar explanations.
a page of the FSI Basic Spanish study book
The uninviting study book of FSI Basic Spanish.

Needless to say, the course can get difficult to get through.

But this is the price you pay for great results. You have to ask yourself: “Do I want to speak Spanish or play a game?”

I know which one I prefer!

In language learning, you get results through sustained effort. And that’s exactly what’s needed to complete FSI Basic Spanish.

Where Can You Download FSI Basic Spanish?

Since the course is in the public domain, it’s not hard to find.

You can download it from the FSI Language Course site.

You can also take the course online at LiveLingua.

I recommend you:

  1. Download the entire course.
  2. Put the audio on an MP3 player (preferably not your ever-distracting phone).
  3. Transfer the book to an eBook reader (if you have one).

That way, you can work on your Spanish without too many distractions. When working with this course, you will want to be distracted, so it’s best to address that head-on and eliminate them.

Here’s My Method to Get the Most out of FSI Basic Spanish

FSI Basic Spanish was designed for classroom instruction and not so much for self-study.

So before you try to slay the monster, it’s best to come up with a thoughtful strategy to conquer it.

Here’s mine.

First, let’s take a look at what you need to get started:

Tools and strategies

FSI Basic Spanish is a huge course, full of difficult material.

You could easily spend entire days on a single unit.

At that pace, you’ll complete FSI Basic Spanish just before you draw your last breath.

Needless to say, you need a way to go through the course faster while still actually learning the material.

The way to do this is to use Spaced Repetition on the exercises you struggle with.

Spaced Repetition is simply the practice of repeatedly testing yourself on already learned information but in increasing time intervals. It’s a proven method to learn better.

Note: You’re going to need an agenda, a notebook, and (ideally) an MP3 player to make this work.

  • Agenda: Pretty much any agenda will do, but make sure it’s a paper agenda and not a digital one. The cool thing about FSI Basic Spanish is that you can stay away from distractive devices like computers and smartphones. I recommend you take advantage of this.
  • Notebook: Any large notebook will do. You’re going to write down difficult words you want to remember on the left, and their translation on the right side of the page.
  • MP3 Player: Any MP3 player that lets you fast-forward and rewind the audio will do. You will listen to the audio lessons on your MP3 player. Why an MP3 player and not your phone? Your phone will distract you and keep you from learning.

You should also print out the book if you can (700 pages per volume!), or use an eBook reader.

Again, try not to use your phone or computer; they will only distract and steal precious study time from you.

How to work through the units

When you start to work with a unit, you’re going to do three initial passes:

  • First pass: Listen only to the audio of the unit.
  • Second pass: Listen, read, and do the exercises. Hit pause whenever you need to.
  • Third pass: Listen and do the exercises. Use the book only as a reference source.

After this, you’re not done with the unit yet.

You must sprinkle in a bit of Spaced Repetition to accelerate the learning process.

Before you start each unit, write down “UNIT X” at the top of a page of your notebook. This is to create a section for notes on a specific unit.

Also, mark the current date in your calendar as Unit X, Day 1.

Do the same for:

  • Day 2
  • Day 7
  • Day 30
  • Day 90

This is to take advantage of the Spaced Repetition effect. (Use this date calculator to find which dates you should mark in your agenda.)

Don’t worry; you’re not going to repeat the entire unit each of these days. That would create an incredible workload because as you finish a unit, you must continue with the next one, and so on… Before you know it, you’d be learning Spanish all day long…

So to prevent this, you must write down the stuff that gives you trouble and repeat that.

Use your notebook for this.

Write down:

  • New words and phrases you come across and want to remember. Write the translation on the right side of the page. By covering each side of the page respectively, you can practice flashcards right out of your notebook.
  • Short grammar explanations or examples.
  • The numbers of the exercises you’re having a tough time with. Each exercise is numbered, so this is an easy way to find the exercises later and do them again.

Important: The first time you go through a unit (the first pass), be very selective in what you note down. Everything may seem difficult, but on the 2nd and 3rd passes, it may not give you headaches anymore.

So let’s say you got through the first unit, the page may look something like this:

UNIT 46

La garganta – the throat

A ver – to see, let’s see

Una capa de oro – a layer of gold

Examinar – to examen

Ir a parar – to end up

46.21.11 (exercise you need to repeat)

46.21.33 (exercise you need to repeat)

Usually, a unit will take up more than a single notebook page. The above is just an example.

So after you’ve done the three initial passes through a unit, here’s what to do on the other days:

  • Day 2: Review notes* and go through the entire unit one more time (one pass).
  • Day 7: Review notes* and go through the entire unit one more time (one pass).
  • Day 30: Review notes* and only do the difficult exercises.
  • Day 90: Review notes* and only do the difficult exercises.

*This means you play the flashcard game by covering up one side of the page and practice the words and phrases you wrote in your notebook.

Strategies to combat boredom and frustration

Working with FSI Basic Spanish can get hard.

Fast speakers, subpar audio quality, and tough drills are an excellent recipe for boredom and frustration.

It’s important to know that you are not at their mercy.

There are things you can do to make it all a bit more bearable.

Here are some of them:

Walk around while you’re doing the exercises 

This works great to release some of the pent-up frustration.

If you just sit still at a desk studying, the frustration might be overwhelming. Not so when you walk around.

If you don’t mind making a fool out of yourself, go outside. It works even better.

I used this trick extensively when I was going through the course. I would walk up and down my apartment’s hallway. It helped me a lot.

Of course, if you need the book, this won’t work so well.

So, for those sessions, you’ll need to be more stationary.

If that’s the case, try the following:

Vary your study location 

If you keep studying in the same place, you can get bored quickly.

To freshen things up, go study in another place.

But varying your study place isn’t just a mood-booster…

It also improves memory retention.

And that’s a pretty convincing argument not to stay in the same place for too long at a time.

Take breaks

Taking breaks is extremely important…

Why?

Because you can stomach pretty much anything as long as it’s only for a short amount of time.

FSI Basic Spanish may be a frustrating language course, but that doesn’t matter as much if a break is just around the corner.

Keep each session to 30 minutes max, then take a break. When the break is over, start another session.

Don’t be afraid to vary the session time. For the harder material, you may want to limit sessions to 15 minutes.

Experiment a little and go with what works for you.

Change up your language learning with complementary resources

Every time FSI Basic Spanish has you on the edge of a burnout…

…change it up for some other language learning resource.

FSI Basic Spanish is a fast-paced course. The exercises give you little time to breathe.

And that’s great.

Why?

Because you won’t have time to breathe in real-life conversations either!

But sometimes you need to slow down a little.

A slower pace can help you:

  • Wrap your mind around grammatical concepts you don’t understand yet.
  • Conjugate verbs correctly.
  • Fix your pronunciation.
  • Blow off some steam so you can come back to FSI Basic Spanish refreshed later.

So grab a textbook, listen to Pimsleur, or even do a Duolingo session.

But whatever you do, remember the following:

To get the most out of the complementary materials, match the content to wherever you are in the FSI Basic Spanish course.

So if you are learning the Imperfect Spanish Tense in the FSI course…

…then also try to work on that with your complementary materials.

There are two exceptions, though:

  • It’s almost always a good idea to learn more nouns, especially if you don’t know many yet.
  • If you’re past a particular unit but haven’t really learned its contents well enough, use your complementary materials to catch up.

If you don’t know what complementary resources to use, I offer some recommendations later on in this post.

Focus on getting your time in, not on your performance

Some days you just can’t get anything right.

Suddenly all exercises seem too difficult for you, even the ones that used to be easy.

And the more you focus on your (temporal) inability, the worse you do.

On days like these, it’s easy to throw in the towel. The key to getting through them is to only focus on getting your study time in and not on your (lack of) results.

Your only job when things aren’t going your way is to finish your session. That’s it.

Learning a new language can be an emotional rollercoaster, especially with FSI Basic Spanish.

But after a while, or a few days, the rain will clear up. Then, you’ll look at it with a more positive outlook.

You have to keep going. Some days will be difficult, but when they are…

…just focus on getting your time in and nothing else!

Have Faith in FSI Basic Spanish

When you start working with a new language app or course, there’s always that nagging insecurity:

What if this doesn’t work, and I’m just wasting my time?

It’s only natural to think that way. You don’t want your blood, sweat, and tears to be for nothing…

And this sentiment is ever so present when you’re not doing well with the course. It feels like a monkey on your back.

But do not worry…

FSI Basic Spanish was created to get results. The US diplomats of the 60s needed to learn Spanish fast.

So this isn’t some childish language app developed more to keep you hooked on a game instead of learning a new language. This is the real deal.

If you do the work, FSI Basic Spanish will deliver. I can testify to that.

It’s the main reason I speak Spanish today. It gave me a tremendous framework to further improve my Spanish in the real world.

The method works, so have faith in it.

Complementary Resources

No single language course will get you straight to fluency.

FSI Basic Spanish is no exception.

Apart from real-life practice, you’ll also need learning resources that complement your main language course.

So here are some Spanish language resources that work well with FSI Spanish.

Please note: these are resources I used while learning Spanish. They served me well, but I’m sure there are plenty of other resources that could work just as well.

Practice Makes Perfect series

This book series works excellently with FSI Basic Spanish.

If the course is going a little too fast for you, use one of these guides to brush up your skills.

There’s a Practice Makes Perfect Spanish textbook for:

*The links above are Amazon affiliate links.

Schaum’s Outlines

These are classic textbooks, just like high school textbooks of the 80s.

They are similar to the Practice Make Perfect Series, but not as engaging.

The material is dry, and the font size could be a little bigger.

Still, I’ve found them useful. The explanations are pretty good. And I like how they take into account the regional differences, especially in Schaum’s Outline of Spanish Vocabulary.

*The Schaum’s Outline links are Amazon affiliate links.

!Búscalo! (Look it up!)

This is a great little grammar reference guide.

If you’ve forgotten about the intricate workings of a grammatical concept and need to look it up fast, this book will do the trick.

I’ve used it myself countless times.

It’s not as well-known as some other Spanish language books, but I highly recommend it.

It’s a great companion to FSI Basic Spanish.

*The link to “Búscalo” is an Amazon affiliate link.

Real-life resources

Once you’re a few units into the course, start using real-life resources to practice your listening comprehension.

Pick some podcasts that discuss topics that interest you. Listen to them and see what you already understand.

Be gentle with yourself! You cannot expect to have excellent listening comprehension yet. In fact, it probably sucks big time. But listening to these podcasts will help you get used to the sounds and flow of the language, and —in time— your listening comprehension will improve.

Also, check out FluentU and Yabla. Both tools let you learn a language through video content. They’re a bit like YouTube, but for language learners.

Both have their strengths and weaknesses. But Yabla has more interesting video content and is a bit cheaper.

Note: I did not use FluentU or Yabla when I was learning Spanish. FluentU wasn’t around back then, and I had never heard about Yabla.

FSI Basic Spanish Alternatives

FSI Basic Spanish is a great course.

If you manage to get through it, you’ll be speaking Spanish at a good level.

But it’s not for everybody.

Some people find it excruciatingly boring and frustrating. The poor audio quality doesn’t help either.

So are there similar courses but without some of the drawbacks?

Let’s take a look:

Platiquemos

Platiquemos is simply an updated version of FSI Basic Spanish.

That means that:

  • The audio quality is better (but still not top-notch).
  • The language in the course is modernized.
  • All exercises have their own little audio file, which makes it easier to go back to a specific exercise.
  • The speakers do not speak at such a fast pace. This hurts your listening comprehension in the long run, but it does make the course a little easier for beginners.

Don Casteel, a former Foreign Service Officer, who went through the original FSI course himself, created Platiquemos.

He sadly passed away years ago, but the course is still being sold on Amazon (affiliate link).

Camino del Éxito

This is almost an exact copy of the original FSI Basic Spanish.

The only difference is that the audio is re-recorded, which makes for better audio quality.

The course sells for a whopping $200!

You can be the judge on whether or not the improved audio quality is worth the hefty price tag.

Unlimited Spanish

cover of el curso magico - unlimited spanish

If FSI Spanish is too dull, Unlimited Spanish may work for you.

This audio course is not as comprehensive as FSI Basic Spanish, but it uses a charming story-based method that keeps things from becoming too dry.

The question and answer sessions make you feel like you’re conversing in real life.

There are four different Unlimited Spanish courses, ranging in price from $37 to $99.

You can get a 20% discount by visiting my Spanish resources page and using one of the links there.

Please keep in mind that Unlimited Spanish focuses on Spanish from Spain, while FSI teaches you Latin American Spanish.

Conclusion

If you want to learn Spanish and are ready to make sacrifices for it…

…FSI Basic Spanish is the course for you.

Why? Because it’s the best Spanish course around.

If you complete it, you will be rewarded. It’s absolutely worth it.

However, if it’s the kind of course that gives you nightmares, it’s better to look for alternatives.

One thing is for sure, though…

…you’ll never know unless you give it an honest try.

Over and out,
Noel

Affiliate disclosure: (Some of) the links in the post above are affiliate links, which means I'll receive a small commission if you click on the link and purchase the product. Please note: I only recommend products and services that I believe will add value to your life and your language learning. If you decide to purchase through one of the affiliate links, you’ll be supporting Smart Language Learner, which in turn will lead to an improved site with more helpful content for language learners. So thanks for that in advance. I appreciate it!
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9 comments

  1. Hi Noel,
    Everyone talks about – and has been talking about – Spaced Repetiton – for years, and from what I understand, it can be an extremely valuable tool in language learning.
    However, as an ESL teacher, it is difficult for me to incorporate pricey or even small-fee methods into my classroom ( for students just after grade 12).
    In your opinion, what is the best, FREE and easy-to-use Spaced Repetition software readily available today?
    Thanks very much for your posts.
    Kind regards,
    David
    (from the Paris region in France)

  2. Thanks, David.

    Yes, Spaced Repetition works.

    I’m not sure about flashcard apps for classroom use, but I like Ankidroid for Android and Anki for windows.

    But you would obviously need something that scales well, maybe at the cost of having less features.

  3. Hi Noel,

    This overview of FSI Spanish is exceptionally well thought out and put together. As someone who bought the Platiquemos version of FSI, I’ve tried working through it and found myself stopping after a few days each time (partly due to wondering how effective it was compared to other resources and probably a little bit of boredom). However, I feel like in my mind I’ve always known how good it was and was just too lazy to stick with it.

    However, after reading this review I feel like you’ve mentioned so many important things that really resonated with me personally. That has motivated me to jump back in and stick with the course. I’m committed to completing it, using many of the tips you mentioned in this article. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed reading it and wanted to thank you for the effort put into this!

    1. Thank you, Avnoor. My pleasure.

      Yeah, I really think you should work through it. The course really helps you get the fundamentals down. I see so many people who may have learned a lot of Spanish words but are lacking in basic stuff because they didn’t use a learning resource as complete as FSI Spanish. It’s really worth it.

  4. This is a very nice review of FSI Spanish Basic Course. It is true, it is still the most comprehensive Spanish course around, but not easy to work through.

    Sorry for the self-promotion, but you may also want to have a look at the FSI Spanish enhanced version for Apple Books we created. It makes the whole course much easier to use. Levels 1-3 (Units 1-45) have already been released, as well as units 46 and 47, and we are currently working on the rest of Level 4.

    You can find more information here:
    http://www.dicendipublishing.com

    Thanks!

    1. On the first pass, I recommend just listening as each unit introduces quite some new stuff. But that doesn’t mean you can’t comprehend or even say the answers out loud if you so wish.

      It’s not a scientific formula. The most important thing is to make multiple passes through each unit. And then a few more spaced out over time, either the whole unit or only the difficult exercises.

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