How long does it take to learn Spanish?

How long does it take to learn Spanish and speak it fluently?

If you’ve recently started learning Spanish, you might have asked yourself the question:

So how long will it take me to become fluent in Spanish?

This is a normal question to ask, but in reality, it’s so vague that the answers you’ll get are usually all over the place.

  • “It’ll take years of relentless studying to get there!”
  • “You can have a fluent conversation after just 2 weeks!”
  • “With my method, you’ll be speaking Spanish in just 3 months!”

The worst part: depending on your goals, all of those can be correct!

So how can we still set some realistic expectations about how long it will take you to learn Spanish?

In this article, I’ll give you some numbers and guidelines that show you how to achieve your Spanish goals, no matter what they are, in the fastest way possible.

We’ll start by determining what fluency means for you personally. Then we’ll take a look at a breakdown of the most efficient activities you need to perform to learn Spanish and how much time you should realistically spend on those.

Finally, (and maybe most importantly), you’ll discover the #1 strategy shift that will make it possible for you to learn Spanish much faster than if you were using traditional methods.

Because of course, there are fast and slow ways of learning languages 🙂

Before we get started: here’s a very quick answer to your question

Before we get started, here’s the quick answer (that won’t tell you much, though). I suggest you read the full article to get some actionable advice on how to learn Spanish fast and efficiently!

Based on the method we use in our Spanish courses, you can count on about 168 hours of focused Spanish studying and 336 hours of casual exposure to Spanish (immersing yourself). In total, that’s 504 hours of time spent with Spanish, of which only 20% active studying!

Based on CEFR calculations, it would be about 400 classroom hours, combined with 800 hours of independent study time. So 1200 hours in total. Classroom time is clearly not the most effective way of learning Spanish! Read on to find out why there’s such a big difference in these calculations 🙂

Short answer: how long does it take to learn Spanish?

You can expect to speak Spanish comfortably on a variety of topics with 168 hours of focused studying and 336 hours of low-intensity immersion to the Spanish language. That's 504 hours of time spent with Spanish, of which only 30% active studying! On a normal, easy, schedule, that'd take you about 48 weeks.

So what is fluency to you?

What does ‘learning Spanish’, or ‘being fluent in Spanish’ mean to you? That you can order a beer and some food on your next trip? That you can participate in a long, elaborate discussion about Mexican politics? That you pass a Spanish certificate exam?

Here’s my take on it:

You don’t get fluent in the Spanish language as a whole; you get fluent speaking about certain topics in Spanish, depending on which topics you focus on most.

For example, if you’re learning Spanish because you have a lot of Spanish-speaking colleagues at work, you might want to focus on getting fluent speaking about work-related topics (meetings, maybe some topics specific to your line of work).

But if you’re an expat moving to Madrid, you’ll have to be able to talk about renting a house, government-related topics, customs, immigration, buying groceries, and so on.

If you think about it, the same happens in your mother tongue! In your mother tongue, you can speak effortlessly on a really wide range of topics, but there are probably certain specific topics (spacecraft? Medical terms?…) you can’t say a single useful thing about.

Why?

Well, because you don’t know the specific terminology, and you don’t know which expressions and phrases are used. Just like in any other language…

In my view, you can speak Spanish fluently on a certain number of topics pretty quickly. Once you have some basic vocabulary and grammar knowledge, it’s just a matter of listening to Spanish people speak about the topics you want to be able to speak about as well. Observe them, hear what they say and how they say it, and learn to say the same things!  (More on that later on in this article)

I call this serial fluency: you make a list of topics/situations in which you want to speak fluently. You focus on one topic at a time and get fluent speaking about that specific topic. Once you’re satisfied, you move on to the next topic on the list.

Serial Fluency in Spanish

You don't get fluent in the whole Spanish language. You get better at speaking Spanish about certain topics and in certain situations. The longer you learn Spanish, the more situations and topics you'll be able to talk about. That's what I call Serial Fluency.

The logical consequence is that if you’re talking about “native-like fluency”, the real answer to the question of how long it takes to learn Spanish is: you “never stop learning Spanish”. Just like you’re still learning about new topics every day in your mother tongue.

But for you as a student of Spanish, that answer isn’t really useful, is it?

Let’s take a look at concrete figures and some guidelines to set expectations for yourself!

How long does it take to speak Spanish fluently – the official figures

First of all, I believe that most estimates by official institutions for how long it takes to learn Spanish (and other languages) are grossly overstated.

Why?

Well, because they focus on “classroom hours”. Which, in most schools, means:

  • Hours spent listening to a teacher explaining grammar rules;
  • Doing some grammar drills;
  • Reading some texts;
  • and maybe saying a sentence or two each hour.

 

how long does it take to learn Spanish - classroom
Learning Spanish in a classroom like this is not exactly the most efficient method...

If your classroom hours look anything like what I just described, then they’re one of the worst ways of spending your language learning time. (Private classes are a different matter, of course.)

But since you’re here for concrete numbers, let’s take a look at those first. Afterwards, I’ll introduce you to a much faster (and more fun) way of learning Spanish 🙂

Learn a language with TRADITIONAL (=ineffective) learning strategies: FSI approximation

The American Foreign Service Institute conducted some research on a group of native English speakers studying Spanish (and a range of other languages). They tried to calculate how long it would take to reach “General professional proficiency”.

According to their research, for Spanish, as a language quite similar to English, that would take you about 575-600 classroom hours. Depending on how many classroom hours you have a week, that can take you quite a while. In my opinion, it says more about the efficiency of learning languages in a classroom than about how long it really takes to learn a language.

The CEFR approximation

The Common European Framework for Reference for Languages (CEFR) is the institution that came up with the different language levels you might have heard of before: A1 level is total beginner level, then it goes all the way up to native-level proficiency: A2-B1-B2-C1 and finally C2.

The good thing about these levels is that they are not just based on grammar knowledge, but also on specific topics you need to be able to converse about. As mentioned at the beginning of the article that that’s one of the best ways to measure your actual, “personal” fluency.

The CEFR uses “guided learning hours” to calculate how many classroom hours you need to reach B2 (high intermediate) level. They estimate you need about 400 classroom hours, combined with 800 hours of independent study time. That’s 1200 hours in total (source).

A realistic and more useful calculation: the fastest way to learn Spanish

Here at Effortless Conversations, we run our own language courses, called 12-in-12 Challenges, for Spanish, German, French and Italian.

We follow the CEFR framework to determine grammar content and the basic topics that will be useful to almost all language learners. We organise a 12-week Challenge for each level. We have 4 levels in total: A1, A2, B1 and B2.

If you follow the challenge guidelines meticulously and use the learning materials, you can realistically expect to get to the high intermediate B2 level in 4 x 12 weeks = 48 weeks.

So what are those guidelines, and what does that mean when it comes to time investment?

Well, our challenges are based entirely around “guided self-study”. We don’t host live classes you need to attend, because if it’s just a teacher talking about Spanish, you’re not learning much from those anyway.

All the time spent in our courses is “independent learning time”. Because guess what: 

You are the one who has to learn Spanish.

A teacher can explain grammar rules to you, but ultimately, your very own brain needs to absorb the vocabulary, the structures and all the small quirks of the language.

But not all “independent learning time” is created equal. In our courses, we divide the time spent on learning Spanish in Focused Study Time and Casual Exposure Time.

Make a focused effort to study Spanish…

As Focused Study Time, we ask students to do at least 30 minutes of focused studying a day, at least 5 times a week (but ideally daily).

During this Focused Study Time, you sit down and make an active effort to learn Spanish. You dive deep into a set of language learning materials and try to learn as much as you can from them.

Important here is that the students are using a specific type of learning materials, and our Effortless Conversations Method. That allows them to move much faster and have natural sentences roll off the tongue in Spanish. You’ll learn more about that method in a second.

So 30 minutes of focused studying, 7 times a week. That doesn’t sound like much, does it?

Trust me, it’s enough — IF you combine it with tons of Casual Exposure to Spanish.

…and have fun by immersing yourself in the Spanish language and culture!

During your Casual Exposure Time, you immerse yourself in Spanish in a fun way. For example, you could:

  • Listen to music, radio, or podcasts,
  • Watch TV, movies, or videos on YouTube,
  • Read novels and news articles,
  • Talk with conversation partners, etcetera, or
  • Do whatever you find interesting.

During this Casual Exposure Time, your focus is not on studying, not on learning grammar or vocabulary, but on having fun, on engaging with the Spanish language and the culture, and on getting used to the sounds, the rhythm, the flow.

This is low-intensity immersion. I don’t even count it towards studying, but it’s absolutely key if you want to learn Spanish fast. Even if you don’t notice it yet, by being immersed in Spanish, your brain is picking up more than you think while doing this.

Expose yourself to the Spanish language with podcasts, series, and some music!

In sum: How long does it take to learn Spanish?

So let’s talk numbers: If you go through the A1, A2, B1 and B2 12-in-12 Challenges, you will study for 48 weeks. At 30 minutes a day, 7 days a week, that amounts to 168 hours of focused Spanish studying.

Let’s say you immerse yourself in Spanish for 1 additional hour every day. This is a conservative estimate and not that difficult to do; all it takes is watching some series, listening to some music, maybe substituting your daily English podcast with a Spanish one, and speaking some Spanish once in a while. The more, the better of course.

If you’re learning Spanish, you’ll probably enjoy this so much that you might do much more! But let’s stick to 1 hour. That’s 48 weeks x 7 days a week x 1 hour a day = 336 hours of casual Spanish exposure time.

In total, that’s 504 hours of time spent with Spanish, of which only 20% active studying! Trust me, that can be enough to get fluent in Spanish on quite a wide range of topics. It’s more fun than sitting in a classroom doing grammar drills, too 🙂

CEFR/FSI estimate

To learn Spanish fluently
1200 hours
  • 400 classroom hours (ineffective!)
  • 800 self-study hours (homework?)
  • Preparation for certification exams, not Spanish for use in the real world

"Effortless Conversations" estimate

To learn Spanish fluently
504 hours
  • 168 hours of focused studying
  • 336 hours of low-key, fun exposure to Spanish
  • Learn by yourself, learn to understand native speakers in conversations and speak like them yourself
Score!
 

So which steps exactly should I take to learn Spanish faster?

Looking at the results of students in our 12-in-12 Challenges, the calculation in the previous section is more or less accurate. But, as I said before, it only works because those students are following some clear guidelines!

Apart from motivation and consistency, here are the two factors that’ll have the biggest impact on how fast you learn Spanish:

  1. How you set up your routine (your time management → efficiency)
  2. What you’re actually doing with your time (your learning method → effectiveness)

We’ve already explained how you can set up a solid study routine:

  1. Do 30 minutes of Focused Study Time at least 5 times a week.
  2. Do as much Casual Exposure Time as possible, to immerse yourself in the Spanish language and Spanish (or Latin) culture.

For more information about setting up a study routine, read this blog post about language learning routines.

The other factor is the actual “learning method” (and learning resources) you use, and THIS is where most Spanish learners (and teachers, and schools, and even universities!) go wrong and waste lots of time.

Here’s my advice for learning Spanish really fast in a way that makes tons of sense, but for some reason, nobody is using.  

Step 1: learn at least the 300 most frequent words (this is still intuitive)…

If you’re a complete beginner, learn the most frequent 300-500 words. This will give you a great headstart in reading/listening comprehension. It won’t get you speaking yet, but at least you will understand something. You can find a good list here.

If you’ve been studying Spanish for a couple of weeks already, you can skip this step 🙂  

Step 2 (here’s the catch): after that, learn no more Spanish word lists, ever!

Ok, so after you’ve learned these basic words, you stop learning word lists altogether and start using Spanish conversations instead.

Why?

Well, it all comes down to the difference between having a construction mindset and an observation mindset.

The construction mindset pitfall

You see, the problem with traditional approaches to language learning (learn lots of words, then learn grammar rules to combine these words into sentences) is that, as you might have experienced already, you’re almost always too slow and clumsy to string together sentences this way in actual conversations!

No matter how much you practice and how many grammar drills you do, if you have to think about the rules during an actual conversation, you’ll mess up.

I call this the “invention” or “construction mindset” to learning a language: you feel like you need to build every single sentence from scratch with abstract rules and words.

The observation mindset epiphany

So what should you do instead?

Well, a much faster way of learning a language is adopting an “observation mindset”.

You see, Spanish native speakers are talking about the topics you want to talk about every single day. Which mean that they’re creating natural, fluent sentences every single day. Sentences you want to start using as well!

So why don’t you just listen to what native Spanish speakers say, and read what they write?

It’s important that you don’t just listen to understand, but also listen to hear HOW they say things. You want to discover the exact word combinations they’re using (linguists call them word chunks or phrases). So you listen to their conversations.

When you take on this observation mindset, very soon, you’ll come across phrases where you think:

“Oh, so that’s how a native speaker would say it!”.

And once you’ve had that realization, you can start using the exact same wording while speaking yourself!

Discover the natural way of speaking Spanish by observing native speaker dialogues!

Easy, right?

This strategy of discovering and learning word chunks instead of single words is called chunking.

Doesn’t it make much more sense than trying to figure out the whole language by yourself and translating in your head all the time?

If you learn Spanish this way, you’ll sound natural much faster and you won’t have to worry so much about grammar rules. After all, you’ve heard or read the right (or natural) way to say things in Spanish, right?

You’ll still need to learn a bit about Spanish grammar, of course. But trust me, you’ll speak fluent Spanish in no time if you approach learning this way because you can bypass the rules while speaking!

This is the basis of the Effortless Conversations Method that we use in our language courses, and it’s the main reason why our students are getting such great results. The full method goes like this:

  1. Get lots of input: listen to Spanish native speakers (read along on a transcript if you can’t understand them yet)
  2. By listening so much, you improve your listening comprehension
  3. You try to discover the word chunks in everything you read or hear
  4. You memorize the chunks, instead of the isolated words they consist of, effectively bypassing grammar rules
  5. You use the chunks while speaking Spanish… and you’ll sound natural like a native Spanish speaker!

I’ve taught this method to tens of thousands of language learners; many of them say it was a huge mindset shift, an epiphany even, that allowed them to finally be confident while speaking Spanish. Chunking makes them feel natural, like a native speaker. 

If you’d like to learn more about this method, you can check out this in-depth post on chunking.

Step 3: use chunking to systematically tackle important topics you want to be fluent in

Once you realize how the chunking method works, learning Spanish becomes much easier, right? You just need a list of the topics to learn about, then observe native speakers talk about that topic, learn the chunks most frequently used to talk about the topic, practice a bit, and move on to the next topic.

Like discussed earlier, you do that by:

  1. Planning Focused Study Sessions (where you read, listen discover chunks, memorize them, maybe learn some grammar); and
  2. Planning Casual Exposure Sessions (speaking, listening in general, casual reading).

When it comes to learning materials, you’ll make the most progress if you use conversational materials. Dialogues, for example. Podcasts. Interviews. Even scripts of tv series or movies! Every resource (you can find many of them for free) where Spanish speakers are communicating. 

It’ll be easiest if you have both the audio (to practice listening comprehension) and a transcript of the audio (so you can read along) to make sure you can accurately unearth and learn chunks. Using these materials will help you reach fluency much faster than an app like Duolingo or Babbel or even something like Rosetta Stone.

You can find such learning materials on the internet; we create them for our students in the 12-in-12 Challenge for Spanish as well.

Some other important factors

Finally, here are some other, more obvious, factors that impact how fast you can learn Spanish

  • Have you learned a foreign language in the past? Language learning is a skill; and if you have successfully learned a language in the past, you’ll also be more confident that you can do it again. But of course, no matter if you have any past experience, you can learn Spanish too!
  • Do you know a language like French or Italian? Structure- and vocabulary-wise, French and Italian are so closely related to Spanish that you’ll be able to learn it much faster.
  • Consistency/motivation: no matter the learning materials or method you use to learn Spanish, you’ll still have to put in the work over an extended period of time. If you give up after just a couple of weeks, you won’t get far.
  • Doing something every single day works much better than studying 3 hours straight once a week. So the frequency of your study sessions (not just the duration) has a big influence on the time it takes to learn Spanish!

What can you realistically achieve? Take a look at some people studying Spanish (and other languages) with this method:

Take a look at Brian, who used the chunking method to learn Spanish in a 90-day challenge:
Learn Spanish tips: Testimonial Brian 12-in-12 Challenge Brian
See what a 90-day challenge can do for you?

Did you read what he said there, in the middle of that post?

In the last 3 months I have completed a normal year of studying Spanish.

Pretty impressive, right? 

Brian was doing his own 90-day challenge where he was looking for useful chunks everywhere. His experience was part of the reason we started running the 12-in-12 Challenges with our own custom-made materials. And students in these 12-in-12 Challenges have reported some pretty amazing results as well. Here’s Kevin, who’s studying German with us:

Testimonial Effortless Conversations Method Kevin
Kevin sounding "way too natural for a beginner". That's what chunking does to you...

Although Kevin is learning German, the concept (and the results) is exactly the same. You can speak naturally and confidently in a really short timeframe–as long as you use the right method… 

You’ll probably even sound “way too natural for a beginner” and impress native Spanish speakers, just like Kevin did for German! That’s not just a possibility. It’s a probability.

Conclusion

There you have it: not just an estimate for how long it’ll take you to learn Spanish, but also a quick guide on the fastest way to get to fluency!

The two biggest takeaways:

  1. If you were thinking of learning Spanish by attending classes, it’ll take you a LONG time to get fluent. Not the most efficient way of taking on this challenge 🙂
  2. Based on the data in our courses: If you learn Spanish by yourself, focus on learning chunks native Spanish speakers use, and you commit to studying 30 minutes a day, 7 days a week, you can get to an intermediate level in 48 weeks. For that to happen, you’ll need to expose yourself to Spanish in a fun, casual way as well. In total, you can count with about 504 hours spent with Spanish.

Conclusion: how long does it take to learn Spanish?

You can expect to speak Spanish comfortably on a variety of topics with 168 hours of focused studying and 336 hours of low-intensity immersion to the Spanish language. That's 504 hours of time spent with Spanish, of which only 30% active studying! On a normal, easy, schedule, that'd take you about 48 weeks

If you’re interested in learning more about the chunking method to learn Spanish and you want a step-by-step guide to set up 12-week study plans to reach effortless conversations in Spanish, then I invite you to check out the Amazon bestselling book I’ve written on the topic, called Effortless Conversations.

Read the Effortless Conversations Book

This book outlines the exact Effortless Conversations Method we're using in the 12-in-12 Challenge.

An overview of the chunking method for language learning, memorization tricks, listening comprehension training, speaking training, resource selection, all the way to creating your own 12-in-12 Plan: this book gives you all the tools and strategies you need to learn any language successfully.

Read this and you'll understand why 12-in-12 students are so successful at learning languages.

After its release in September 2018, the book was a #1 Bestseller on Amazon in 3 different countries (in the foreign language acquisition category, of course, not on the whole website 😉 ).

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