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They’re Lying to You About How Long it Takes to Learn Spanish



How long does it REALLY take to learn Spanish?

  • “Ummm, well it depends on a lot of different factors…”
  • “It’ll take you just 10 days with our secret method! Learn while you sleep!”
  • “You need study 30 hours a week for 5 years”

Everywhere you look, you’ll find answers to this question that are either unhelpful, exaggerated, or downright misleading.

I’m going provide a definitive answer to this question once and for all, as well as demystify some of the conflicting opinions you may have heard or read on this subject.

But first, we need to agree on the following:

The definition of fluency

When you say you want to learn Spanish, then I assume you want to eventually become fluent.

Everyone seems to have their own definition of what fluency really means, but it can generally be boiled down to two different levels:

  • You can understand about 95% of what you hear or read about everyday topics. For more complex or technical subjects, you don’t understand as much but you can still get the gist of what’s going on.
  • You can comfortably hold a 1-on-1 conversation at a normal speaking pace and you can usually get your ideas across regarding a variety of topics without having to repeat yourself or stop to think too much.
  • Your pronunciation is clear and accurate, and you’re easily understood by native speakers.
  • You can understand 99-100% of anything you hear or read, regardless of subject matter. This includes all jokes and cultural expressions.
  • You can express yourself spontaneously and precisely in complex situations involving groups of native speakers. You can accurately communicate emotions and subtle shades of meaning.
  • Your pronunciation is perfect. You can hold a 2-hour conversation with a native speaker and afterwards they wouldn’t be able to tell that you didn’t learn the language from birth.

In my opinion, the majority of people wanting to learn Spanish should aim for “conversational fluency” because it is very achievable for everyone.

Conversational fluency allows you to enjoy most of the benefits of knowing how to speak Spanish, like being able to travel with confidence to a Spanish-speaking country, communicating with a loved one, or using Spanish in a work setting.

Frankly, most people are never going to reach “native-level fluency” because it takes exponentially more work to get there, and the added benefits of which may not be worth it.

Best-selling author and polyglot Tim Ferris puts it this way:

“To understand 95% of a language and become conversationally fluent may require months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years. There is a point of diminishing returns where, for most people, it makes more sense to acquire more languages (or other skills) vs. add a 1% improvement per 5 years.” – Tim Ferris

Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to become fluent at a native level.  But as a beginner, aiming for a more achievable goal puts less pressure on yourself and can save you a lot of frustration.

So when it comes to the question of how long does it take to learn Spanish, we’re talking about becoming conversationally fluent.

What the snake oil salesmen will tell you

Nowadays there is an endless array of apps, software, and courses that claim to teach you Spanish in days or weeks.  Many of them claim to be “science-backed” and offer plenty of convincing testimonials to convince you that they are the real deal.

But at the end of the day, these wild claims are just their way of hooking you in.  If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

(…all you have to do is take our magic pill!)

So what’s the harm in exaggerating a bit in order to get people started?

The problem is that people will start using the app or software, and inevitably won’t improve as fast as they thought they would.  They’ll compare themselves against the results promised by the program, and ask, “Why am I not getting this?”

When this happens, many people will end up blaming themselves.  This leads to a loss of confidence that can manifest itself in various harmful ways.

Some people will give up learning Spanish all together and will NEVER pick it up again.  According to them, they’ve tried it and failed, and may even believe that they’re just not cut out for languages.

This is a shame because in reality, it’s the program and the unrealistic expectations they’ve been fed that are to blame.

What the out-of-touch experts will tell you

There are a number of government organizations that have also weighed in on how long it takes to learn Spanish.

By far the most popular, widely quoted opinion is from the U.S. Foreign Services Institute (FSI).

According to an FSI study, it should take 600 classroom hours to achieve conversational fluency in Spanish.  Furthermore, they suggest an approximate 1:1 ratio between time spent in the classroom, and time spent studying independently (most people miss this part).

Therefore, the total time spent will actually be around 1,200 hours! (If that seems like a lot, it is!)

Now, assuming you’re enrolled in a typical college Spanish class that runs 3-hours per week, that means it will take you 4-years to learn Spanish!

Believing a statistic like this is just as damaging to language learners as the unrealistic promises we talked about earlier.

One of the most important things for a beginner is to start learning Spanish with a positive, confident mindset.

However, figures like the 1,200 hours quoted by FSI paints the goal of learning Spanish as a daunting, massive undertaking.  Rather than doing people a favor by telling them what to expect, it intimidates and discourages them from wanting to pick up Spanish in the first place.

Learning Spanish isn’t a walk in the park, but it is not nearly as difficult as the FSI is making it out to be.

Why they’re dead wrong

Inefficient methods

The FSI’s answer to how long it takes to learn Spanish, is based on classroom hours.  The problem is, the traditional classroom is one of the least effective ways to learn.

In a group Spanish class, you have one teacher lecturing 20-30 students.  In a 3-hour class, each student might only get 10 minutes of actual speaking practice. Also, the class moves only as quickly as the weakest student, so you may find the pace of learning much slower than what you’re capable of.

In contrast, if you’re taking part in 1-on-1 conversation practice, you’ll probably get to speak for 30 minutes of every hour.  In a classroom, you can hide in the back and passively listen to a lecture. But when it’s just you and your conversation partner or Spanish teacher, you are actively learning the entire time.

According to research from the NTL Institute, people remember much more information if they are learning it actively:

In other words, if you’re focusing on having conversations (practice doing / immediate use), you could be learning up to 15-18 times more efficiently than in a traditional classroom (lecture).

By concentrating on the most efficient ways to learn Spanish rather than the slow, outdated methods recommended by the FSI, you will be able to learn in a fraction of the time.

Fluency isn’t an exam

Most organizations measure fluency on the basis of reaching a certain academic level or obtaining a certification.  So when the FSI says it takes 1,200 hours to learn Spanish, they’re really talking about passing a Spanish exam.

Even the most popular software and apps use this as a benchmark.  Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and Babbel have all funded their own studies claiming that their app can help you cover the requirements of one college semester of Spanish.

Now there’s nothing wrong with trying to learn Spanish for academic reasons, but there are many people who have passed a test, or have received a Spanish certification, but can’t actually speak Spanish with confidence.

The truth is, the vast majority of people want to learn Spanish for REAL LIFE.  They want to speak with and understand REAL PEOPLE, not just fill-in-the-blanks on a test paper.

As you can see, there is a gigantic disconnect between how languages are taught, and the results that people are looking for when they decide to pick up a new language.

So if you want to learn Spanish for the real world, then you should devote as much time as possible to learning via real human interaction.

Intensity vs. Consistency

Let’s say you decide to go all-in on Spanish.  You quit your job, fly off to Guatemala and enroll in an intensive 4-week Spanish course.  You study for 5 hours a day until your brain turns into mush. You come home having nearly reached the conversationally fluent level.

You settle back into normal life, you all of a sudden have other commitments, there are fewer opportunities to practice, and your Spanish starts to regress.  This is an example of high intensity, low consistency learning.

When you can’t maintain a high level of intensity, you’ll forget what you learned very quickly, because your memory follows a decay curve and it needs to be reinforced regularly.  That’s why after cramming for a college exam, most students feel like they’ve forgotten everything after just a few days.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who have been learning Spanish for years.  They spend 5-10 minutes a day with a free language app, and then maybe once every few weeks they go to a Spanish meetup in their city.  They’ve doing this for 3-4 years and are barely conversational.

This is an example of low intensity, high consistency learning.  Since the intensity is low, it’s not difficult to keep that up week after week.  However, progress is extremely slow and sometimes this can cause people to give up altogether.

Like many things, there is a nice middle ground that you can shoot for.  In my opinion that “sweet spot” is about 1 hour per day of learning time.

Most of us lead busy lives with work, school, family and social obligations taking up much of our time.  Yet we should try to learn Spanish with a moderate level of intensity, because few people have the patience to wait 4 years or more to learn a language.

If you can dedicate more than 1 hour a day, then that’s fantastic, but the more time you spend, the more difficult it will be to maintain that pace consistently.

If this sounds like too much of a commitment to you, then ask yourself, are you busy for the sake of being busy?  Most people waste a lot more time than they realize, and occupy themselves with “activities” that keep them busy but don’t accomplish what’s truly important to them.  Freeing up an hour a day isn’t as hard as you think.

The bottom line

If you start out as a beginner and spend an average of 1 hour per day working on your Spanish, you should able to reach conversational fluency within 8 – 12 months.  That translates to roughly 250 – 350 hours of time spent.

This assumes that you are taking lessons with a Spanish teacher at least 2 times per week, and spending the remaining time doing homework, and reviewing what you learned.  This is by far the most efficient way to learn Spanish.  For example, someone learning with Verbalicity might have a schedule that looks like this:

  • Monday: Lesson from 8:00 – 9:00 PM, after dinner
  • Thursday: Lesson from 7:00 – 8:00 AM, before heading off to work
  • Saturday: Spend the morning doing homework assigned by your teacher, with a cup of coffee
  • Every day: 10-15 minutes of vocabulary practice with a flash card app

This learning plan averages out to about 1 hour a day and should fit into anyone’s schedule, whether you’re a busy professional, or full-time student.

If you want to learn on your own without a teacher, then that’s perfectly fine too.  You’ll just need to make sure you get enough conversation practice via language exchanges or meetups, and be very disciplined about studying on your own.  It will take a lot more time than if you were learning with a teacher, but it is still possible to become fluent within 1 year.

So how long does it take to learn Spanish? It won’t happen overnight, but it also won’t take as long as you think.

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