Whenever we set out to learn something totally new – skating, guitar playing, juggling, you name it – we unavoidably wonder how long it will take us. Knowing the required time frame allows us to make realistic expectations and plan our training accordingly.
Of course, some skills can be mastered within days or weeks. Others take months before you start seeing the first results. Learning a foreign language when you have absolutely no previous background can really try your patience.
According to the US Foreign Service Language Institute, Spanish is a Category I language, requiring around 600 classroom hours to learn.
Have you decided it is time to give Spanish a chance? Congrats! Knowing this language is probably one of the best skills to have, considering how widely spoken and useful it is. All your effort is guaranteed to pay off, so go for it!
Wait a second… How long is it going to take me to learn Spanish if I have zero previous knowledge and the only words I know in this language are “guacamole,” “siesta, “tortilla,” and “tacos”?
Yeah, I figured you were going to ask that.
Unfortunately, there is no one answer to that question, as the pace of learning – not only Spanish – depends on too many factors.
How Long To Speak Spanish Like a Native – Things to Consider
I am sure you’ve heard all sorts of opinions about it. Some people spend years and years studying Spanish and never really get there. Others claim that with this unique technique or that cutting-edge methodology, they managed to master Spanish in only a few weeks.
If I am to give you my honest opinion as an experienced Spanish teacher, to estimate how long it is going to take you to become fluent in Spanish, you should evaluate the following:
- your mother tongue
- the time you have available to study
- your objective
- your resources
- your motivation and perseverance
- the level of immersion you can achieve
Why and how do these things influence language learning? I am about to explain that.
Your Native Language Can Be an Aid or an Obstacle to Learning Spanish
Have you ever noticed how certain languages sound alike and others might as well come from a different planet? That is because they belong to different language families.”
Let’s take Spanish. Along with Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and French, it belongs to the so-called Romance Language Family. Think of it as a branch of a massive tree with five different twigs, each twig representing one of these languages. The big branch powers the twigs, and they all originate from it.
Do you speak Italian? Is French your mother tongue? Did you take a course in Portuguese back at school? This will be of enormous help once you start learning Spanish. Lots of similar vocabulary, many parallel grammar rules, the same logical structure.
But what if your native language belongs to a completely different branch on the opposite side of the tree? What if you speak native Korean, Arab, Japanese, or Russian?
Most probably, it will take you much longer to wrap your head around Spanish.
Are you an English speaker? Good news! Your branch (Germanic) is quite close to the Romance one, which means that despite certain structural differences, you will still find many similarities.
Can I Learn Spanish in a Month?
The time you put into studying Spanish is another crucial element that determines how long your learning process is going to take.
Taking two 45-minute classes a week is very different from studying every day for several hours. Keep that in mind when trying to estimate how long it might take you to learn Spanish.
Do you like hard data? Take the 600 hours I mentioned at the beginning and divide it into the number of classes you take weekly. How many weeks is it going to be?
Of course, learning doesn’t happen in a classroom environment only. Your individual “informal” contact with Spanish can considerably speed up the whole process.
Will listening to music in Spanish help? Yes!
So will be memorizing vocabulary, practicing verb conjugation, and doing grammar exercises – all the mundane things that hardly anybody likes doing but must be done anyway.
In summary – and sorry to sound like a Christmas killjoy – don’t expect your proficiency in Spanish to happen overnight. A lot of work must be put into it, so better make realistic plans.
Communicative Fluency vs. Native-Like Fluency
How well do you want to speak Spanish?
Are you aiming for a perfect accent, impeccable grammar, and native-like vocabulary?
Or do you “just” need to communicate in this language without major difficulties?
Who needs to speak Spanish like a native? Mainly people who major in Spanish, those who prepare the C2 DELE diploma, or are certified teachers of this language.
If you don’t belong to any of those groups, achieving communicative fluency should be more than enough.
What’s the difference between speaking Spanish like a native and being able to hold a fluent conversation in it?
In simple terms: even though you have no problems understanding and expressing yourself, people will still know it is not your first language. Your pronunciation might not be perfect, and you might still make a few mistakes.
In terms of the necessary time and effort – is native-like fluency worth it? The graph below should help you decide:
As you can see, to move from speaking Spanish well enough to speaking it perfectly requires exponentially more time and effort.
How You Study Spanish vs. The Time It Takes to Master It
The way you study Spanish and the resources you use have a great impact on the final outcome.
Spending your days conjugating irregular verbs and cracking the Past Subjunctive will take you nowhere if you haven’t actually had even the simplest conversation in this language.
20+ student group classes are much less efficient than one-on-one sessions. The practice time they offer represents only a tiny fraction of what you can get when it is just you and the teacher.
Literal translation, gap-filling, unrelatable reading activities, and other “old-school” learning methods are proving less and less efficient for language training.
Does the WAY you study Spanish play a role in your success? It most definitely does.
My best piece of advice? Focus on active learning. Speaking Spanish, writing texts in it, explaining it to others involves much higher retention rates, which means that you don’t forget what you have learned.
Passive learning, on the other hand, which consists mainly of reading or listening to Spanish, doesn’t provide that much training to your brain. Instead of finding the right words and connecting them into correct patterns, its job is to simply recognize them. That, in turn, offers way lower retention rates.
Another important thing I’d like you to remember has to do with study resources.
When choosing how you are going to study Spanish, go for as much variety of materials as you can. Most of them are readily available on the internet, and some are even free of charge!
Quick research can easily take you to excellent Spanish podcasts and blogs, Youtube tutorials, audiobooks, and – if you are a social media fan – Spanish learning groups full of motivated and helpful people, both teachers and students.
Can I learn Spanish by myself? Yes, you can, as long as you are serious, motivated, and persevering. Having no teacher and not being able to attend formal classes should not scare you away.
If You Like Spanish You Will Learn It Faster
My daughter passionately hates maths. And – good guess – she struggles with it at school.
It doesn’t really matter what came first: the hatred or the struggle. The point is that it is much harder to learn something you don’t enjoy.
The conclusion is simple: studying Spanish for fun and pleasure is way more effective than being forced to learn it.
Another key element to determine the final result is, of course, your motivation.
Ask yourself why you want to learn Spanish.
Has your boss offered you a salary raise if you learn this language?
Are you planning to move to a Spanish-speaking country?
Are you romantically involved with a Latino or a Spaniard?
Does your college graduation depend on the extra credits this language is going to give you? All of these are extremely strong motivation factors, and they are bound to help you persist.
More trivial reasons, on the other hand, such as “I want to understand what that song is about”, “I am going to Punta Cana in the summer”, “my neighbors are Mexican” are more likely to wane over time and prove insufficient to keep you trying.
The More Contact You Have with Spanish, the Faster You Learn
An ideal environment for language learning is that of total immersion. With Spanish all around you, there is no escape from it. You simply need to learn it in order to survive.
Naturally, the easiest way to achieve those conditions is by spending enough time in a Spanish-speaking country (like I did) or signing up for an intensive course of Spanish, preferably abroad.
Imagine this: you turn on the TV – all the channels are in Spanish. You tune to the radio – all they play is Latin music. Shop assistants speak no English. Neither do clerks, taxi drivers, nor passersby. Products have labels in Spanish; all sign boards are in Spanish.
I guarantee you will make progress daily.
Of course, not everybody can afford to study Spanish abroad or is in a position to take a break from their life for as long as it takes to learn this language.
Can you get immersion without moving out from your house? Why not? It only takes a little creativity:
- Find a language exchange partner (preferably a native Spanish-speaker) who needs to improve his or her English. In this way, you can help each other for free.
- Latin soap operas are great for learning the everyday language – surely you can find one on your local TV? Make sure to set it to its original language version, with the dubbing off.
- Get to know the Spanish speaking community in your town. You’ll be surprised at how friendly and kind Latinos can be. In this way, you’ll not only learn to speak their language but get a much better understanding of their culture and traditions.
- Read books in Spanish – even at the lower levels. You can find a big selection of dual-language books on Amazon. Pick more challenging titles according to your progress.
- label things in your house – words like “un salero” (a salt shaker), “una almohada” (a pillow), “un tenedor” (a fork) will stick in your head for longer if you get to see them every time you have a meal or go to bed.
- write regular letters in Spanish to a real or imaginary friend telling them about your day.
How long does it take to learn Spanish? I hope I’ve managed to make it clear that there is no one answer to these questions. It depends on too many things, some more controllable than the others.
Can you speed up the process? Definitely, but always within a reasonable timeframe. Just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, Spanish can’t be learned in a month.