Since I started learning languages on my own, I've researched numerous language learning theories and tackled several languages. Some with good success, and some not so much. I've witnessed people become fluent in a foreign language in a matter of months - others struggle for years to get the basics down. All of this got me thinking: How long does it take to learn Spanish?
Spanish, is not the most difficult language in the world, but even for an easy language, it's still quite a feat. Many things come into play when considering how long it'll take to learn Spanish. Generally, however, I'd say that an average English speaker could reach a lower advanced level of Spanish in a little under two years with one hour of consistent self-study per day.
But to really answer the question, we need to look a little closer at the different things that might make or break your Spanish learning process.
Let's get into it then!
What Does It Mean To Speak Spanish Fluently?
First you need to decide what you're actually aiming for. When people speak of learning Spanish, it's usually understood that they mean "I want to become fluent in Spanish".
But what is meant by fluency? Some people consider fluency in languages as being able to come across as a native speaker. No accent, no errors and no giveaways. If this is your goal, you don't need to look long for an answer. How long does it take to learn Spanish to the level of a native Spanish speaker? A lifetime!
Wikipedia and most encyclopedias have another definition:
Fluency is to speak quickly and eloquently...
That sounds more doable!
And why would you actually need to sound like a native anyway? Having an accent, or a certain style borrowed from English is only charming to whoever your audience is - as long as you speak correctly, and that you are easily understood.
Aiming for speaking fluently - with eloquence and speed - and most importantly without errors - is still a difficult feat. You're going to spend 20% of your time in the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels and 80% on the upper advanced before you really get there.
Your Background Greatly Influences The Time Needed For Learning Spanish
How much have you studied before? What's your native language? Did you grow up in a multi-cultural neighborhood? Have you already learned a foreign language? And more importantly - have you already self-studied another language? When asking how long does it take to learn Spanish, these questions about your background all play a role.
If you're an academic, sitting down and dedicating time to study might be more natural to you. But what's more significant: If you are bilingual or know several languages, you will have an idea what makes a language and you might find it easier switching your brain from one language to the other. You don't block or panic at the idea at adding Spanish to the mix. In a way it's just more vocabulary.
Spanish is a language in the romance language family These are all languages with a common ancestor: Latin. If you know Italian, Romanian or perhaps even Portuguese, you're already ahead of the rest of the class.
However, the English language will also help you. Did you know that 30-40% of words in English have the same roots as Spanish? English has throughout its history been thoroughly influenced by the romance language family. First by the Roman Empire - then by the French in the middle ages. To illustrate my point, check out this list of English/Spanish cognates.
Since you're an English speaker (and I know that you are) you already have an advantage.
Your Study Method Determines How Long It Takes To Learn Spanish
How do you count on approaching the Spanish language? Will you sign up for a class? Get a tutor? Study on your own? Only listen to podcasts while you drive?
When you decide to pick up Spanish, you need to make a plan: How are you going to study it?
Most people that set out to learn a foreign language assume that they need to be in a class. This is the traditional approach. That's how people in academia study languages. But here's a tip - that's not how they LEARN the language. (Go read my other article called "Should I Sign Up For Spanish Language Classes?")
Courses, whether they be college courses, evening-classes or other settings of formal student-teacher situations - are not that effective. As a student in a class, you need to share a teacher with 10, 25 or perhaps 50 other people. For two hours. Once per week. That's, at best, 12 minutes of dedicated study time with a teacher per week. And that's assuming that your teacher is a great one.
I know! You're supposed to keep studying in your spare time and the teacher has a lot of knowledge that is shared in class. And so on. But if you are supposed to study 12 minutes in class and 5 hours at home - which one do you think is most beneficial? And if you need answers to those burning grammar questions - ask the internet! It's even free.
Learn Spanish Through Self-Studying.
As you might gather, I'm not a fan of language classes. I once paid to sign up for one, when I learned French, but I discovered that it got me nowhere.
What really works is studying on your own. It's more effective and it's faster. But you need to know what you're doing to avoid wasting your time.
Get yourself a good beginner's guide with Spanish audio. I always recommend Assimil Spanish to complete beginners. (That's a link to AbeBooks where you can usually get Assimil Spanish cheaper than on Amazon). I like the fact that Assimil focuses less on grammar and more on Spanish sentences. It's also an overall pleasant experience to study with Assimil, and it doesn't contain that much English which I like. If you want to learn more about Assimil, check out my review for Assimil French or Assimil Arabic.
Assimil, however, is not sufficient to learning Spanish. It merely breaks the ice, and you need much more than the course offers, but it's a good start.
Keep Your Study Methods Varied
When learning languages, it's extremely important to keep your study methods varied. When you do several things at once, you'll stimulate your brain every time you recognize something you already studied in another context. Hearing a word used in the radio after having studied it in a book helps weave a tighter web of synapses in your brain.
As you're progressing with Assimil, you'll need to start listening to audio in Spanish. A podcast like SpanishPod101 could be a fit.
Another program that I suggest you add to the mix is LingQ which is an app for reading in foreign languages. LingQ is extremely helpful if you want to read and learn from news articles, blog posts and fiction in Spanish, but your level is not quite there yet. Go read my review of LingQ.
If you need more recommendations, I've put together this huge list of Spanish courses you might find helpful.
Routine Is Important - How Often Do You Study?
Another thing in relation to your method of studying Spanish - is when you use these methods. If you spend half an hour a day, you're better off than studying for 8 hours once a week. It's another one of those "2+2=5" deals. In this case, a little study session each morning and another in the evening equals a much better result than a huge amount of time all at once.
This is because consistency keeps dipping your brain in Spanish. You never get to forget anything, because you always get back to studying and get reminded before the words are gone. There's also something to be said about learning new material in the evening - sleeping on it - and revising in the morning. The brain simply works better that way, and you'll end up learning Spanish faster.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't dedicate a lot of time to studying Spanish - but you need to be consist with that time.
The Time You Dedicate (That Might Be A No-Brainer..)
And that's another obvious thing to take into consideration when asking "how long does it take to learn Spanish". Do you study 15 minutes a day? An hour? Maybe two hours? The more time you spend - if you spend it efficiently, it'll make learning Spanish faster.
I recommend that you study between 30 minutes and 1,5 hours a day. Less will make your progress very slow and you will have a hard time both adding new material and revising. You can be hard pressed on how to learn a language on a busy schedule, and it can be difficult to find the time. But spending a huge amount of time can be worse.
Go read my blog post about fitting language learning into a busy program
I've been at a point where i studied Arabic 3-4 hours a day while also working full time. I got obsessed with working as hard as I could for several months, thinking that my progress would be great. The more more I revised my flashcards, the better I could repeat them - but it didn't help me actually speaking the language.
I was only saying sentences on command like a parrot, I was not really speaking Arabic. And then it happened: Burnout. Working too hard takes the fun out of it. You stop advancing and you risk losing it all along with your motivation who's shipped sail.
What is your motivation? Are you motivated enough?
In answering how long it takes to learn Spanish, you need to look at your motivations. If you're not motivated, you progress at a much slower pace than if the opposite were the case.
Over a decade ago when I taught myself French, I studied mostly for fun. This can be OK. I was on an adventure, learning something new and trying to impress myself with achieving something.
When it really started working, however, was when I got a clear goal. I got the opportunity to become an exchange student in Paris for 6 months. The semester were to start half a year later. Working towards an exiting goal like this was great motivation. I had a whole new life in front of me - or at least it felt like it.
Setting goals and planning for the future can be great motivation for learning Spanish. Being able to make friends with almost 500 million Spanish speakers in the world can be another one.
One thing is certain - you'll get there much faster if you're motivated. If you aren't, you might not even get there at all.
Wether You Know People Who Speak Spanish Influences How Fast You Learn
It might seem obvious, but if you have no one to speak Spanish to, you won't progress as fast. You can get by without conversing with Spanish speakers for sure. But if there are people around you who encourage you, and whom you can impress with your achievements, you're bound to learn Spanish faster.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Spanish? Here's What Linguists Say:
Researchers have already done the math. The American Foreign Service Institute is in charge of teaching US diplomats foreign languages. They've made a list of different foreign languages that they teach, and how many class-room hours they judge that a student need to take in order to acquire the language.
For Spanish it's 600 hours.
Now what does that mean exactly? To understand this number, it's important to know the condition in which students are taught with FSI. The classes are normally small, so the teacher is only shared between 5-6 students. 25 hours are spent in class per week and students are supposed to spend 3 hours of daily independent study.
When you do the numbers, it adds up to a little under 6 months of study time. This is definitely not bad, but when you take into consideration that you're basically studying full time during that whole period - not so much.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Spanish Then?
Learning Spanish in 6 months is fast. I think it will be very difficult, to do it any faster than this.
I am certain that I couldn't do it any faster. But I think that you can learn Spanish in 6 month with a little less effort than FSI is putting forth. If you were to spend 2,5-4 hours each day spread out over 3-4 sessions during the day, I think that could do it too.
The key is to keep your brain fresh - when you get tired, you do something else for a while. You need to vary what you do and to be concentrated while you do it. Reading grammar explanations in English is not really studying - seeing the grammar in context is.
How long does it take to learn Spanish if you dedicate 1,5-2 hours a day? If the conditions are all good, I'd say one year. Two years if you spend an hour a day.
Realistically, however, most people don't fulfill these "perfect conditions". We haven't all had experience with Spanish in our childhood. We're not all experienced learners, and it is not always possible to be consistent with your self-studies. Sometimes you just can't find the time, and other times the motivation just is not there.
I'd say that the number that applies for most people is 3. Three years, and you'll speak Spanish fluently.
If It Sounds Too Good To Be True..
And as a last ting, I want to point something out. There are loads of people out there who want your attention and who try to grab it by yelling out numbers. Start speaking Spanish in a week! Become fluent in three months! Learn Spanish while sleeping! This all sounds really good.
Too good, and it obviously is.