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How long does it take to learn Spanish?

A beginner’s guide to learning Spanish

by Racheal Smith

How long does it take to learn Spanish? it's not so easy to answer this question, since, as you may imagine, there are many factors involved into this. First of all: what is your native language? if your native language is French or Italian (or your are just fluent in them) then it'll be a lot easier, since you already speak a romance language. But if you only speak English, of course it'll be more difficult. So: how much does it take for an English native speaker to become fluent in Spanish? According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), to learn Spanish it takes about 600 hours to reach a good level of Fluency (not the highest, of course). But it might take longer or less, since again there many factors involved: are you a fast learner? Have you got already some other experience in learning other foreign languages? As you can see, it's not a simple question to answer, we can't just say 6 months, 1 years, 700 hours and so on, since each individual is different, with a different story and background.

Surely learning Spanish isn’t that easy but it is one of the languages that is simpler than most.  You are not likely to master it in a few weeks but you will get some basic phrases under your belt that can get you started in the country.  However, if you want to master Spanish grammar it is going to take you a couple of years.  English grammar is simple in comparison to Spanish – so you might find yourself mixing up your verbs and your tenses for a while.
The best advice for learning any language is to build up your confidence in bitesize chunks.  An obvious starting point would be to learn vocabulary of the items you are most likely to speak about when visiting Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina or any other Spanish speaking country.  This is why in school you would start with your name, your family, food and general directions.  From these basic beginnings you can layer on chunks of complexity that move you from learner, to intermediate to a fluent speaker, writer, reader and listener.
Here are some difficulties for learning Spanish and some potential solutions that will break the learning down into manageable chunks.

learning spanish in mexico

Verbs and tenses!

To be fair to the Spanish language, verbs in English are pretty difficult as well – we even throw in irregular verbs that have little to do with any known rule.  However, learning verbs in Spanish is more than just learning a single word.  Each verb is conjugated – or linked – dependent on person and number.  This means that you are likely to need to memorise up to 6 different forms of the same verb.  It gets even more difficult when you throw in tense and you could be memorising conjugated verbs for the next two years.  Just to add to the difficulties there are two forms of the verb phrase “to be” – there is the fixed (Ser) and the transient (Estar).

One hint is to only focus on the present tense in the first instance.  The idea is to perfect speaking and writing in the present tense first and use words like tomorrow and yesterday in order define time changes.  This choice will give you a fighting chance to learn verbs in small chunks and then build on this chunk in the future, adding more complexity when you are capable of coping with it.  You can always use private conversations with friends to practice past and future verb tenses as you grow in confidence.

Nouns have genders

A lot of languages across Europe give objects a gender – the same is true in Spanish.  This makes learning Spanish more complex for native English speakers and therefore will make you more prone to errors.  The general rule is that feminine nouns tend to end in a – but there are lots of exceptions.
The answer to this is to try speaking Spanish and make mistakes. When you make a mistake, you should note down the irregularity and reflect on this often.  In other words, write down nouns in two columns for feminine and masculine and use this sheet as a reference.  When moving from being a beginner learner to someone more advanced you will need to try to perfect what at first will be forgiven as a minor error. 

Learn something about the subjunctive

We use the subjunctive in English all the time too, just not as often as in Spanish.  This is about sentence order and about adding additional information to a sentence using the appropriate tense and punctuation.  An example in English would be, “If you ask me, you should catch the train today.”
There is no easy route to grasping the use of the subjunctive.  You are likely going to need professional guidance in a language program to help you form a solid grounding in this fundamental aspect of grammar.  For a while you might find yourself speaking in clipped sentences and therefore lack the fluency of expressive Spanish.  However, as a starting point it is ok to consider avoiding the subjunctive whilst you are learning. Surely, we can affirm that, when asking yourself how long does it take to learn Spanish, the subjunctive plays an important role.
If you want to try to use longer sentences and keep the conversation going for longer, try using connectives instead.   Desde, pero, sin embargo, de todas maneras, mientras are all connectives that can help you add on another simple construction to your point and so extend your contribution.  Be aware, this way of form longer sentences will sound highly formulaic to a native Spanish speaker but is a natural progression on from just short, simple sentences.

Remembering the accents…

In English we should remember to dot the I’s and cross the t’s but beyond this our biggest issue is understanding the use of hyphens.  It is a bad habit of new language learners to miss off the tildes and accents when writing in Spanish – even though these accents change the whole meaning of the word.  It is important because Spanish is a phonetic language – meaning it is written as it sound – and the only time this is different is when the tilde is applied to words.
You might think that the use of accents in Spanish are fairly arbitrary and therefore difficult to learn.  However, the way to get over the use of accents is to understand the rules and the logic behind them.  The accent has two purposes – to show you which syllable to stress and to differentiate between two words that are spelled identically.  Tell me that wouldn’t be handy in English to help tell the difference between to read and to have read. 
The use of an accent to indicate stress is usually dictated by the last letter.  Words ending in a vowel generally the penultimate letter is stressed. If this isn’t the case then the Spanish helpfully provide an accent over the part of the word you should stress. Also, if the Spanish want to toughen up a weak vowel and not have it blend with its stronger next-door vowel – then they give it an accent.  If you apply these rules when writing, it then becomes easy to understand pronunciation rules.


spanish in spain

Keeping up with the natives

It is one thing learning all the rules and applying these in chunks to your language learning, it is another to try to follow the conversation of native speakers.  Spanish people speak really really really fast.  Native English speakers can cover about 6 syllables per second in English, whilst our Spanish counterparts can use up to 8.  Immersion, or being swamped by language use and therefore picking it up by necessity and exposure, is therefore tough in any Spanish speaking country.  Immersive language learning often requires you to pick up certain words within a sentence and then using context to guess the rest of the meaning.  Often, with native speakers, the language will come out so quickly that picking up even a single word is difficult.
The natural solution to this difficulty is taking formal language tuition.  If you cannot hope to pick it up by living amongst native speakers, then you need professional help to break the language down and provide the basics. 

Another option would be to read a lot of Spanish and listen to audio books at the same time.  Alternatively, you could read recognised online Spanish magazines.  If you do this a lot then you can start to pick out the key features of the language and recognise this easier when it is spoken.
It might also be a good idea to spend some time noticing the similarities between English and Spanish.  Language learning is about pattern learning – and there is a lot that the two languages share.

Spanish doesn’t travel well

Spanish is not the same the world over.  If you learn Spanish to be spoken in Spain there will be differences to the Spanish spoken in Catalonia, which is essentially part of the same country.  Equally, if you take your Spanish from Spain and travel to Latin American countries then you will find that words, expressions and pronunciations are different.
But, hang a minute.  Travel from London to Newcastle and then on to Glasgow and tell me they all speak the same English!
The differences in the use of Spanish is minor and although some words and phrases are different, you will still be largely understood.  The conjugation of verbs, the feminine and masculine genders, subjunctives – these are all the same wherever you speak the language.  There is also a Standard Spanish, just as there is a Standard English – where there are formal formulations of the language that mellow regional differences.

Overall: how long does it take to learn Spanish?

So, let’s summarise the tips that arise from the difficulties in learning Spanish:

start by speaking in the present tense to avoid large numbers of verbs to learn in the first instance – practice past and future with good friends;
make a note of feminine and masculine forms that break the rules and reflect on these as you become a better speaker of Spanish;
take some formal lessons on the subjunctive sentence form but in the meantime, use simple connectives to extend short and potentially stilted sentences;
read lots of Spanish to help you become accustomed to the grammar;
try it out – don’t be shy to make mistakes and use these mistakes to reflect and get better the next time you converse.