In bookstores, I just drool over the foreign language reference section (as my recent visit to Powell’s books proves). Any visit requires me to pass through the language learning materials, peruse and dream of my next language. Chinese, Arabic, Italian all interest me. As do Catalan, Basque, Korean, and several others. I plan on tackling each. For me, purchasing a set of books as I begin a new language is a landmark event. It means commitment. The big C word. If I’m going to shell out money for a whole set of books, I will focus on learning that language. It’s a key moment when I commit to buying a whole slew of reference books for a new language.
Then the doubt begins. Will I actually become fluent this time? Did I choose the wrong language? Sometimes it works for me, sometimes not. There’s the wasted time with Chinese, Esperanto and German. I still can only say read scattered phrases in one of the three. On the up side, there’s Spanish and Portuguese. My shelves are stuffed with books for these languages.
It occurred to me that while I enjoy the adventure of choosing my language learning weapons, some people might not be as enthused. Here I suggest some of my favorite books for Spanish as I launched into the language oh so many years ago. They are the timeless classics, according to me, plus a couple newer additions.
As a quick note, I want to point out that the books and links here are for the paper versions. I love my Kindle. It is so much better than hefting around several books on a trip. But my experience converting my own books to E-books is that most of the graphics and layout is lost in the conversion. This is especially true for non-fiction books where these elements are a fundamental part of such books. Until graphics and other important components of paper books are converted to E-books, I will stick with paper.
The 7 Must-Have Books for Spanish Learners
1. The Cat In The Hat | El gato en el sombrero
One of the best places to begin learning a language is with children’s books. The level will be more in line with your beginner ability and still be entertaining for you. If you choose a book you already know well, there is the added advantage that since you are familiar with the story, much of what you read you will understand from its context. The advantage with this English classic is that everyone knows the story, making it simple to follow along. Since both languages appear in this version, a quick glance to the side resolves any confusions. This version is a literal translation from English to Spanish. Normally this would be a major problem since the rhyme so essential to Dr. Seuss is lost. However, for the beginning language learner the literal translation actually may offer a bit of an advantage. Other Dr. Seuss books are available in Spanish, although most of them apparently are not bilingual. As a last suggestion, once you are ready for other childrens’ books, choose books that are native to your target country. This will immerse you in the local culture and history, besides helping you improve your language ability.
2. Stories from Latin America | Historias de Latinoamérica
While learning a language, most of your early exposure to reading is through textbooks. Which means it’s boring. One of the problems with traditional language learning is that no one makes it captivating and fun. To avoid this one of the things to do is to read interesting books. I know it sounds stupidly obvious, yet it is something many people overlook. Think back to your school reading assignments. Which books do you remember? I guarantee those are the books you had fun reading. The same is true while learning a foreign language. This book’s simple language and short stories offer early exposure to the fun side of Spanish by sharing the legends that are part of the Latin culture. With English on one side of the book and Spanish on the other your reading flows without having to look up words in a dictionary. And you learn about the history and culture of Latin America. This series also includes books with stories on Spain, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
3. Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish: A Creative and Proven Approach
This book was introduced to me recently on Twitter by José Lira (@LearnSpanishYES). It looked intriguing and so I purchased a copy. The book surprised me in several ways. First, it’s old. The original version was published in 1951. And yet, it is still relevant for learning Spanish. Besides that, I expected the book to be a secondary aid to accompany someone while learning Spanish. Wrong! The book provides a complete method for learning Spanish, largely focused on the similarities between English and Spanish vocabulary. For anyone just starting Spanish study you will quickly feel comfortable with the language. Within the first 20 pages, hundreds of words that are similar or the exact same, in both languages, are reviewed and discussed in short, simple chapters. Just on the first page of the Preface words such as radio, conductor, ideal, central, flexible, artista, dentista, presidente, medicina, atractivo, Atlántico and permanente are given as examples. For those of you that have attempted to learn Spanish before with other than fluent success, Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish provides a new angle on how to learn the language. For learners of all levels, this is the book for you.
4. Barron’s 1001 Pitfalls in Spanish
This is my favorite of the books and is just great for browsing. It covers numerous (1001 I’m going to guess without counting) examples when Spanish can hang you up, reviews them and explains in simple clarity how to avoid the mistakes. This book helps you achieve not only fluency, but an educated voice in the language. The great thing about 1001 Pitfalls in Spanish is that it allows you to learn a couple items at a time, at your own pace, instead of working your way through like a typical textbook. This excerpt from the Amazon website captures well the essence of this book: “Students learning Spanish on both elementary and intermediate levels will find this book a useful supplement to their main textbooks. It reviews the most commonly-made errors in speaking, reading, and writing Spanish. The authors focus on tricky vocabulary, idioms, technical terms, and other details in Spanish grammar and usage that differ markedly from English.”
Let’s face it. Verb conjugations suck. There’s no way around it. I don’t care that most languages are harder than Spanish for their conjugations. That argument doesn’t convince me that Spanish verbs are more fun. This book takes away some of the pain. It’s simple to look up a verb or its root (for example, contener and retener would be under tener) and find the 3rd person pluperfect, whatever that is, or any other tense you need. All of a verb’s conjugations are displayed on a single page. According to the Amazon website, this is “the world’s bestselling Spanish verbs reference book” and I agree. For us language geeks it is even a reasonable book to browse.
6. Diccionario de la Lengua Española Esencial
If you are learning Spanish, you need a Spanish dictionary. Not a Spanish-English dictionary. Just a dictionary of Spanish. This is a akin to your parents’ words “Go look it up in the dictionary” whenever as a kid you would ask how to spell a word. A good language learning technique is to look up a word in the monolingual dictionary before checking it in the Spanish-English dictionary. Your success in using the monolingual version will be yet another small sign that you are on the way to language fluency. I chose this Larousse dictionary because they do a good job of covering regional Spanish differences, mentioning when certain words or meanings are relevant to specific countries.
7. Langenscheidt’s Pocket Dictionary: Spanish-English | English-Spanish
Everyone needs a pocket dictionary for the target language and Langenscheidt, with their vinyl covers, offer a great alternative to paperbacks. Not only will the cover not easily rip off, causing other pages to tear, it also provides a huge selection of words without making it impossible to carry in a small bag. As a plus, Amazon has options to purchase this used, including shipping, for under $5.00. Not a bad investment.
Check out these other Spanish Books articles.