How Long Does It Take to Learn Spanish?: An Honest Guide
The Spanish language is the key to unlocking some of the most fascinating cultures in the world. Learn it and your life will never be the same again. But just how long does it take to learn Spanish?
If you're planning a trip to Spain or Latin America, and want to really connect with the locals when you get there, this is the million-dollar question.
After all, if you choose to learn Spanish you're going to have to invest a fair amount of time and effort. So before you get started, you probably want to know how long it's going to take!
When it comes to learning a language you’ll hear countless different estimates for how long it takes to achieve fluency. And Spanish is no exception.
In this post, I aim to cut through the confusion a give you a clear guide to how long it might realistically take you to learn Spanish, so you can decide whether it's something you'd like to do to improve your next travel experience.
How Long Does It Take To Learn Spanish: The 5 Defining Factors
From my experience of studying more than 5 foreign languages, I've come to the conclusion that there are 5 factors which will determine how long it will take you to learn Spanish:
- What are your Spanish goals?
- How closely related is Spanish is to your native language?
- How much time are you willing to invest in learning Spanish?
- How efficiently will you use your Spanish learning time?
- How consistently will you practice Spanish?
Below, we'll take look at each of these factors in-depth one-by-one and see how they affect the length of time it will take you to learn Spanish.
What Are Your Spanish Goals?
The first and most important question for anyone learning Spanish is...
What exactly is it that you want to achieve?
Is your goal to...
- Master basic Spanish phrases quickly so you can survive on a short trip?
- Get to grips with basic conversational Spanish so you can hold simple conversations with the people you meet?
- Achieve a strong intermediate level where you can communicate quite comfortably with most people?
- Become a fluent Spanish speaker who can express and understand almost anything with ease and confidence?
This might seem like an obvious question but it's a big deal.
Because depending on which of these outcomes you want, the time it will take you to learn Spanish will vary greatly.
Start by figuring what your goal is and work towards making your objectives as specific and clear as possible.
You'll need both a 'vision' of what you're ultimately trying to achieve as well as some smaller objectives along the way if you're going to stay motivated.
As a general guideline, here's the kind of time frame I'd estimate for each of the goals listed above:
- Master basic Spanish phrases - 15-20 hours
- Get to grips with basic conversational Spanish - 150-180 hours
- Achieve a strong intermediate level - 250-300 hours
- Become a truly fluent Spanish speaker - 450+ hours
Just bear in mind, these are broad guidelines and how long it will take you to learn Spanish will depend a lot on each of the 4 other factors below.
How Closely Related Are Spanish and English?
One of the main factors that determines how difficult a language will be to learn is how closely related it is to your native language.
Languages that are quite similar to your native language are much easier to learn, while more distant languages can often take years of hard work to master.
As you can see on the map above, Spanish and English are not from the same immediate language family. However, they still have a lot in common.
Spanish is a romance language which means it is descended from Latin. It's very closely related to languages like French, Portuguese, Romanian and Italian.
English, on the other hand, is a Germanic language meaning it's more closely related to German, Dutch, and Danish.
That said, English and Spanish still have a lot in common because throughout history, English has borrowed thousands of words from Latin.
Plus, if you trace the language family tree back far enough, Spanish and English actually do have a connection!
They may not exactly be sister languages but they're a little like cousins - there's some commonality between them.
This means that as foreign languages go, Spanish is relatively easy for English speakers to learn.
(Relatively, as in - it's a lot easier than Chinese, for example!)
There are a few of reasons for this:
- Spanish uses the same writing system as English (unlike most Asian and African languages)
- It has lots of similar vocabulary to English (i.e. association -> asociación)
- Spanish is phonetic (words sounds they way they're written)
- Its grammar is relatively straightforward
In addition, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken and popular to learn languages in the world.
The result of this is that there are lots of great Spanish learning resources available and when you travel, you'll always find Spanish speakers to practice with - there are more than 400 million of them worldwide.
If you're going to choose one language to learn to fluency in order to have better travel experiences, Spanish is the definitely the one I'd recommend (assuming you already speak English, that is!).
How Much Time Are You Willing To Invest In Learning Spanish?
Why is it that some people can learn Spanish in a matter of months while it takes others years just to master the basics?
Often, people measure their progress in a new language in terms of months and years but actually, what we should be doing is measuring it in terms of hours.
Ultimately, it's the number of total hours you spend with Spanish that will determine how successful you are, not how many months or years it's been since you started.
Spend 10 hours studying beginner Spanish over a 2 week period and you'll cover the same amount of ground as someone who invests 10 hours over the course of 10 weeks.
And this is why the time it takes to learn Spanish needs to be thought about in terms of hours rather than months or years.
If you're prepared to put in the hours up front, you can learn "faster" than most.
The FSI (the US Foreign Service Institute) estimates that it takes 480 hours of study to achieve what they call ‘limited working proficiency’ in Spanish.
This is quite a high level of fluency level where you can comfortably express your ideas in social situations and even work professionally in a Spanish-speaking environment.
(It's probably around a high B2 or C1 level on the European language framework.)
Obviously, studying for 2 hours a day will add up a lot faster than studying for 2 hours per week.
If you're studying Spanish for 2 hours a day, you can expect to reach the 480 hours estimated for fluency in just 240 days (or about 8 months).
On the other hand, if you only spend 2 hours per week learning Spanish, it would take you over 4 and a half years to achieve the same level of fluency!
All of a sudden, the reason one person can learn Spanish in a few months while it takes someone else years becomes apparent.
This applies no matter what your Spanish goals...
Even if you're not trying to achieve a high-level of fluency, the same concept applies when learning the basics of Spanish.
It's number of hours you put in, not the number of months you've been learning for, which will determine whether or not you achieve your goals.
However, it's important to remember that this is just one element of how long it takes to learn Spanish.
The next factor to consider is how you use all those hours ...
How Efficiently Will You Use Your Spanish Learning Time?
480 hours sounds like a perfectly reasonable estimation for how long it takes to learn Spanish, in my opinion. (Assuming you want to become fluent).
There's just one problem. Every hour of study time is not created equally!
If you're using those hours efficiently there's no reason you can't learn Spanish faster.
But likewise, if you don't use your study time the right way, it could take you even longer to get your Spanish to a high level!
This is the problem most travellers face.
If you've never learned a foreign language before, you likely have no idea how to use your study time effectively and as a result, you end up going round and round in circles.
I experienced this first hand when learning Spanish in school...
In Ireland, most people study a foreign language in secondary school (high school) and I was no different. I studied Spanish in school for 5 years.
We had four 40-minute Spanish classes each week. That adds up to:
- Over 2 and a half hours of class time each week
- Around 90 total hours per school year
- 450 hours over the course of the 5 years I studied Spanish in school
- Throw in the little homework I actually did and we're getting close to 480 hours.
So, I must have left school speaking fluent Spanish, right?
I actually left school with pretty terrible Spanish.
I passed the exam, but in the real world, I couldn't as much as order a drink!
So what went wrong?
The 480 hours I spent studying Spanish while in school were not the same as spending 480 hours of motivated, well-organised time studying the language.
- I wasn't motivated - At the time I was a teenager and didn't really care about learning Spanish. As far as I was concerned, I was learning Spanish because you're supposed to learn a language in school. I was never given a good reason to be motivated to learn Spanish - we never really talked much about Spanish culture. And I never bothered to look for that motivation myself. That all changed when I decided I wanted to move to South America, and I instantly discovered a motivation I'd never had while in school.
- Large group classes are inefficient - A single hour in a large group class is probably worth the same as around 15 minutes in a one-to-one setting, in my opinion. Even if you have an amazing teacher, large groups prevent you from being able to focus in on your weaknesses and get the personalised feedback you need in order to improve quickly. If you're going to start learning Spanish, study on your own and pay for quality one-on-one time with a native speaker when you need to practice your speaking.
- The school material was boring and impractical - Rote-learning random vocabulary and memorising pages of verbs endings was enough to quickly drain any motivation I might have had for learning Spanish. I soon grew to dread Spanish class and this negative mindset further slowed my progress.
- The focus was on written language and Spanish grammar - Speaking and listening played a much smaller role than grammar and writing in the school curriculum. If you want to learn Spanish to have more meaningful experiences when you travel, this is kind of a problem... because the two skills you need most for communicating with real people are... listening and speaking! This meant that much of what we learned was useless because we lacked the skills to actually apply it in real life. We rarely discussed Spanish culture or practised using the language in any meaningful way other than learning how to order food in a restaurant. I could read a menu, but I didn't learn to speak the language.
- We were taught to pass a test, not learn a language - As bad as my Spanish was when I left school (I could hardly order a drink!), I still passed all of the exams without any issues! We weren't being taught to learn Spanish in school, we were being taught to pass the exam so that we would get good grades for our university applications. If your goal is to learn Spanish for travel, you should be practicing with real people, not worrying about exams.
- I didn't know how to learn a foreign language - At the time, I studied Spanish in school, I had never successfully learned a foreign language before. I didn't know how! And I didn't have access at that time to the kind of blogs and websites that show you how (like this one you're reading!). If 15-year old me knew what I know now, I would have learned so much more, but the truth is that you learn how to do something by actually doing it. This is exactly why learning your first foreign language is so difficult but it becomes easier afterwards to learn a second or third one.
Long story short...
I spent hundreds of hours "learning Spanish" during those 5 years in school but very few of them were quality hours. And as a result, I learned very little.
Compare that to the time I spent learning Spanish myself as an adult, when probably 85-90% of the hours I put in were quality hours... and it's no surprise that by using my time more wisely I was able to become fluent in less than a year.
This is the difference that knowing how to learn effectively and using things like memory skills can make.
How you use your time will be a key factor in determining how long it will take you to achieve your Spanish goals.
How Consistently Are You Going to Practice Spanish?
It's not just how many hours you spend learning Spanish that matters. How consistently you practice makes a huge difference as well.
If you want to learn Spanish quickly and make fast progress, it's better to study for a few minutes every day than for a longer period of time only once or twice per week.
Regular practice is essential for learning Spanish for a few reasons...
- You're Constantly Reviewing What You've Learned: When you practice regularly, you can build directly on what you learn from one day to the next. If you practice less consistently, you'll waste more time going back to review things you've forgotten than you will on learning new material. If you only practice Spanish once a week, you’ll spend a lot of your time trying to remember or re-learn what you learnt the previous week. This doesn’t happen so much if you practice every day. What you learned yesterday will still be fresh in your mind today so rather than re-learning things, you can simply review them quickly and then move onto new material.
- You Start to Think In Spanish: The more often you practice, the more you'll naturally start to think in Spanish. If you start to use Spanish every day (even for just a few minutes) you make it part of your life. Your brain gets used to this language and learns to use it separately from English. Soon you stop translating everything and start to think in Spanish instead.
- You Learn More Quickly: The more often you practice, the more you'll see the same words and phrases crop up again and again. This repetition is an essential part of how the memory works. It means that words will stick in your long-term memory much faster than if you practice irregularly.
- The Faster You Improve, The More Motivated You Are To Keep Going: If you practice consistently, you'll see faster progress and this has a snowball effect. The more you improve the better you're going to feel about your Spanish. This is going to make you even more motivated to keep going. The point? When you practice consistently, you learn a hell of a lot faster and your Spanish will improve much more quickly as a result.
So How Long Will It Take To Learn Spanish?
There is no 'one size fits all' timeframe for learning Spanish.
As you've seen in this article, there are multiple factors that affect how long it will take you to become fluent and the answer will be different for everyone.
The time it takes you will depend on the factors discussed in this post and how they apply to you:
- The amount of time you have to invest in learning Spanish
- How efficiently you practice the language
- How consistently you practice
- Your goals
The FSI estimate of 480 hours to learn Spanish to a fluent level is more or less accurate, in my opinion.
In fact, if you're studying in a reasonably efficient way and doing so regularly, there's no reason you can't see significant progress in much less time.
That said, if your goal is simply to master the basics of Spanish to survive your next trip, as little as 15-20 hours can be enough to totally alter your travel experience.
It’s important to remember that learning Spanish is not a race nor a competition.
You could put in 480 hours in a matter or months, or you could do so over the course of years.
You could just learn the basics or you could set your sights on fluency.
But it doesn’t matter how fast you learn the language or what level you achieve.
What matters is that you enjoy the process and achieve the results you desire.
The number of total hours it takes achieve your Spanish goals will likely be more or less the same, whether you spread those hours out over 3 months, 6 months or 2 years.
What's YOUR motivation for learning Spanish? Let me know by leaving a comment below.
Resources Related To This Article
The Anti-Tourist Club
The Anti-Tourist Club is a training and support centre for curious adventurers who want to do travel differently.
It is where anti-tourists like you and I come together with a common mission:
To put learning at the heart of our adventures and unlock the kinds of meaningful travel experiences most tourists never have.
In Spanish Uncovered, you'll learn to speak Spanish through the power of story. Olly Richards' comprehensive beginner programme teaches you Spanish through a fun and natural method that makes learning a pleasure, and grammar a breeze! If you're interested in learning Spanish from beginner up to intermediate level ahead of your next adventure, Olly's course is my top recommendation.
Survive In Spanish
Want to master the basics of Spanish quickly so that you can get by and connect with the locals on your next trip to Spain or Latin America? Survive in Spanish promises to help you do it in 2 weeks or less, so you can have a more authentic experience during your trip.
Languages of Europe map - Andrei nacu at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]