Answering how long it takes to learn Spanish is not easy. When we begin to learn a new skill, the number one question on the minds of most people is how long it will take to perfect it. That is no different when it comes to languages. We are an impatient species, always looking for ways that we can get to our destination as quickly as possible.
It is no surprise, then, that learners of languages, especially when they are just starting, will try any zany way they can find to get them fluent in as little time as possible.
The thing is with languages, it is very difficult to put an exact time frame on the learning of them because it depends on the language itself, as well as the learner and any external factors.
In this article, we explore Spanish, answering the question that gets asked to us so often “how long will it take to learn Spanish?”. We will be looking at the different factors that could influence how fast a person learns a language. We will also be exploring studies and official guidelines that give estimated learning times.
A good place to start is to assess what level of Spanish would you class as being fluent, comparing it to any official guidelines. What we mean by this is that we must first define fluency and what it means to be a speaker of a language at any level. In even more basic terms, when do you decide that you have learned the language?
How do you know when you have ‘learned’ Spanish?
Feeling as though you have succeeded at learning Spanish will mean different things for different people. For some, this may mean being able to hold a simple, slow conversation with a native speaker, such as being able to order a meal at a restaurant with ease or asking for goods at a market easily.
For others, it is being able to converse entirely in the language confidently and at a normal speaking pace. They may want to have enough knowledge of the language to live and work in a town that speaks it.
Other people may define this as being able to read, write and pronounce words from the language without needing a dictionary to look them up, and to be able to understand all aspects of the language such as jokes, cultural slang, and idioms, and to communicate at a fast pace.
Professional definitions of fluency vary. An article by a British news outlet, the BBC, suggests that for many people, fluency is associated with having a native-level understanding of a language. This means being almost 100% confident in speaking and understanding a language and being able to pick out the meanings in a loud conversation.
However, other experts suggest that being fluent does not necessarily mean that you need to be fully accurate at all times. They suggest that the ability to be able to convey your desired question, comment, want, or need to another speaker of the language in a way that they understand can still be interpreted as fluency.
What Does This Really mean?
To clarify, this means that you can ask for directions in a way that may not be completely grammatically accurate, but the main question and notion still stands and is understood by the other person. It means that you can communicate proficiently, but not necessarily accurately.
The two definitions above can be sorted into two groups: conversational fluency and native-level fluency. It is thought that conversational fluency will mean that you have around 95% fluency if you want to put a figure on it. This is compared to native-level fluency which is 100% accuracy. We know that 5% does not seem like a lot, but in terms of jumping from 95% to 100%, this could take many years!
The good news, though, is that to reach 95% accuracy, it can take less time than getting that final 5%. For this reason, we think that all learners should set their sights on 95% accuracy. This is achievable for most people, and when you have reached that, you will have many years of fine-tuning your skills to reach the native level.
For the sake of this article, we will assume that most of you here want to reach conversational level fluency, to begin with. So, the next step is to see if there are any official guidelines stating how long you can expect it to take to reach conversational level fluency.
Duration to reach ‘conversational level’ fluency
Reaching conversational level fluency in Spanish (or any other chosen language) is the aim of most language programs and apps, whether they are the free downloadable smartphone apps or the more intense short course programs that promise you fluency in a matter of weeks. Now, it is not that these promises of fluency in a few short weeks are wrong, per se, but more that they are setting you up for disappointment.
The reality is that most people just do not have the time to dedicate to the intensity that these short courses demand. Courses can often happen in a country that speaks the language natively. For example, you could book a four-week course in Spain, where you are fully immersed in the language and culture for the whole time.
Sure, this may be beneficial, and you may well be able to reach fluency in four weeks if you do nothing else for those four weeks, but we know that for the majority of learners that just isn’t possible.
Furthermore, these short, intensive Spanish courses also often fail to put the practice time in place for after the four weeks is up, leaving learners to their own devices with knowledge of a language that they may not get to use in daily life. In another four weeks, much of what they learned has gone from their brains because they had had no reason or chance to use it since learning it.
There are exceptions to this. Spanish for Beginners with James, for example, provides a platform from which to progress your Spanish by simplifying Spanish grammar nice and early.
What Other Factors Are There?
As well as these short durations for learning a language, there are also the long durations stated by many language programs, and even by officials. A figure that is often thrown around when it comes to learning Spanish is that of 600 hours. This is something that is also backed by the United States Foreign Languages Service. They state that it takes 600 classroom hours to learn Spanish beyond conversational level.
Notice our emphasis on the classroom. This is because it is based on a typical classroom setting for language learning, such as you would find in a high school or college Spanish class. What these figures also fail to introduce is the homework and independent study that is so often expected and needed in these classes. This could be double that again. Those final figures look closer to 1200 hours, which is a very long time.
This figure is enough to make prospective learners turn around and run for the hills, and honestly, we do not blame them.
Sure, it is good to be realistic, but figures like this could be doing prospective learners and beginners more harm than good. This is because those figures are based on having 3 hours of Spanish learning per week. In total, this mounts up to a whole 4 years dedicated to learning the language. The pace is slow, and the practice is not consistent enough.
Sure, it’s intense, but the timescale is just not attainable for many people. It is also hard to commit to that huge time frame.
“It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”: Effective teaching methods for Spanish
Learning a language can happen through a variety of methods. As we explored in the previous section, the classroom method is intense, but it is not consistent enough to yield efficient and effective results. Spanish is not easy, by any means, but the right method can certainly make it less difficult for you.
The correct and most effective teaching method is one that will be manageable for the learner and will yield good results. It must instill them with confidence, as well as motivate them to carry on with the learning.
It is common knowledge that the best way to learn something is by doing it for yourself. The same applies to languages. You can sit and watch videos of other people speaking Spanish all day, but you will not get very far with your own speaking unless you learn it. Or perhaps read a Spanish textbook for an hour each evening but unless you are practicing the work in the textbook, it is never going to stick in your brain.
You need to be immersing yourself in the language intensely and consistently, especially if you have an aim of learning it quickly. Let’s put it this way: if you push yourself out of your comfort zone and try to hold a conversation in Spanish every day rather than listening to a video of someone having a conversation every day, then you are likely to learn far more quickly and be better at it, too.
Top Tips to Remember in Order to Streamline the Learning Process
You need to remember this: You know all the language classes you ever took at school? They were not real life. So, whether you passed those classes or failed horribly, that does not matter in the bigger picture.
School-level and even college-level language classes are taught with the end goal of getting you a good test result or a shiny piece of paper with a degree on it. They teach you to answer a pop quiz and fill in a blank space on a paper, but they do not teach you to hold a friendly conversation with a native speaker. Getting an A+ in high school Spanish does not make you a fluent speaker.
Furthermore, those figures of 600 and 1200 hours? Well, they are based on gaining a qualification or passing an exam, too. This means, to become truly fluent in Spanish you need to put those grades out of your head. Fear not, though, because this can be done far more easily than you may think.
So, how can you learn Spanish efficiently?
Trialled & Tested Methods
- Get a Spanish tutor that can tutor you one-to-one. Hire someone who can dedicate the whole hour to you. Do these one-to-one classes as often as possible. At least once a week is essential, but twice will be even better. We recommend using a service called italki. This is a global language learning community that connects students and teachers for 1-on-1 online language lessons. More than 10,000 teachers are teaching more than 5 million students over 130 languages on the italki platform. Get $10 Free italki Credit.
- Alongside the one-to-one tutoring, you should also immerse yourself in Spanish in other aspects of your life. Change your cell phone and computer settings to the Spanish setting, watch news reports in Spanish and watch Spanish movies.
- Get yourself a good quality Spanish learning app for your smartphone that will help you practice spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. You can also use a flashcard app such as Memrise (or just physical flashcards if you prefer) to learn these things.
All of these teaching and learning methods work in tandem with each other. You cannot just download an app and expect to get results. Your tutoring should be the basis of your learning, and the rest can filter in when needed.
The important thing to keep in mind is the intensity and consistency of the activities. We have explored these a little already but we want to dedicate the next section to intensity and consistency as it is the final piece of the Spanish learning puzzle!
Intensity and consistency of your Spanish learning
We already know that intense classroom settings are just not consistent enough to yield efficient and effective results. Learning Spanish in this way can take up to four years, based on the typical 3 hours of classroom teaching time per week.
You may think that a fix for this is to get yourself an app that allows you to practice daily, and in theory this idea is sound. However, the issue is that most users of these apps will only spend around 10 to 15 minutes a day on them, sometimes even less. So whilst they have the consistency nailed, they are not ensuring that their practice is intense enough.
Doing this could mean that even after 4 years they can barely hold a conversation in Spanish, let alone understand a normal-paced conversation between two speakers. This could even yield worse results than the classroom method as people would be less inclined to stick to it if they notice they are not getting the results they desire.
So, what are your options? You may be feeling like there are no other ways to go about learning Spanish. However, we are here to tell you that it is possible to incorporate all of the learning methods we listed in the previous section into one ‘middle ground’ way of learning. By this, we mean that you can incorporate one-to-one learning alongside daily app learning and immersion in the language.
This means that we strive for both consistency and intensity. Now, we must warn you, this will be no easy ride, but if you are serious about learning Spanish and you want to get results in a modest amount of time, then our method is worth it. The idea is that, in total, you spend around 1 hour a day learning Spanish.
We know, that sounds like a big ask. However, the good news is that you can break it up through the day if you wish, or even average it out over the week if you know that you just will not get a free hour each day. It involves homework (hey, no groaning please!), it involves watching TV (see, we’re not that mean!), and it involves incorporating Spanish into as much of your daily life as you possibly can.
What it doesn’t mean is spending a grueling hour over a textbook each day, because we all know that that method is ineffective!
Incorporating Spanish into Your Week
We’re not going to give you a timetable because let’s face it, we all know timetables are just going to remind you of school and college….and what did we say about classroom teaching? That is a huge no-no when it comes to teaching Spanish. What we are going to suggest is some activities that you can easily fit into your week, with something on every single day.
- Between two to three hours a week of one-to-one tutoring with a Spanish teacher
- Daily practice of vocabulary and grammar on an app or with flashcards (aim for around 30 minutes a day if possible, but more is great!)
- Completion of homework set by your Spanish teacher or tutor. This should take around two hours and can be done over the week or on one day
- Daily immersion into Spanish in some way. Do this by watching a Spanish news channel whilst you eat breakfast or listening to a Spanish playlist whilst working out. Do this for around 10 or 15 minutes a day, at least.
- Having a conversation in Spanish as much as you possibly can. If the only time you can do this is with your tutor then that is fine, but if you do have access to a Spanish speaker then you can talk to them.
As you can see, incorporating all of these things into your days and weeks does not require a huge amount of effort, but it easily adds up to at least 7 hours. It could actually be a lot more if you aim for the latter amount of time suggested for some of the activities.
Not everyone has the means of hiring a Spanish tutor or teacher for one-to-one lessons, and if that is the case for you then try not to be disheartened. It is more than possible to do it by yourself, but you may want to factor in some extra time where you are teaching yourself.
These easy incorporations of Spanish into your daily life could mean that you can reach conversational levels of fluency after 12 months! In some cases, it may even be a little less, between 8 and 11 months. This is around 350 hours, at most, of your time! What a huge difference to the figures of 1200 hours, and even 600 hours!
So, to answer the original query, how long it takes someone to learn Spanish can depend on many factors. These include the learner themselves, the time they have, the teaching method, and importantly the intensity and consistency at which they practice. If you follow our guide you can expect to see conversational level fluency after around 12 months at most.
In terms of hours, this is 350 hours. A huge difference between this figure and the commonly quoted 600 hours and 1200 hours, right? Of course, this will wholly depend on you putting in the work and following our advice, but if you put your mind to it, you can achieve it. You will be a fluent Spanish speaker in no time – ¡adiós!