At least a couple of times a week I am asked this question: “How long does it take to learn Spanish?” There are a lot of possible answers: “Well, I’ve been at it for 20 years and I’m still learning.” Or, “You can learn a lot in a few weeks in intensive language school.” Or, “There’s a book I saw that says you can learn it in a week!”
(Hint: It takes more than a week.)
The best answer is: “It depends on you.” You may have more natural ability for language than someone else. If you took language classes in the past,
some of it may still be in your brain waiting to surface. (You’d be surprised what still lives in there.) But regardless of your background, there are two things that I have found to be the most important factors:
PATIENCE and PRACTICE.
We’ll start with PATIENCE, because patience seems to be the most difficult part for adults. They want to be able to communicate immediately, and fully, the way they speak in English. They ask a lot of questions, and want to know WHY? And what’s the rule? And how long is this going to take?
The trick to starting out in learning Spanish is admitting that you are a baby. If you think about how you learned English, you didn’t start with paragraphs, right?
First, you learned your letters, then words, then sentences. You understood a lot more of what your parents said before you could articulate your own thoughts,
and by listening you learned. And one day, about the time you were two, you just started spouting out paragraphs. It still took you a few years before you stopped mixing up your sentences and started using the right pronouns.
So, it takes a lot of patience to allow ourselves to go back to being a baby, but that’s what we have to do. It is uncomfortable, but it’s also fun. If you accept your baby self and sit back, listen and absorb, you’ll move a lot faster.
Now, to PRACTICE. This one is simple, really. Learning a language is work. The best way to learn is to practice a little bit every day. (Can you hear your piano teacher’s voice in your head?) If you take a Spanish class, and you never do any work or practice between classes,
you won’t have any momentum and you’ll give up. Or, it will take you Forever and a Day to learn.
Try to listen, read /write, and speak a little bit every day. Listening can be accomplished by turning on one of the Spanish TV channels, watching videos on YouTube, or listening to a podcast. You don’t have to actually understand it all, or even be actively listening. Your mind is absorbing the tone and inflection.
Reading, writing, and speaking can be done together.Use a homework exercise, a children’s book, or an article in Spanish. Try reading parts out loud, then copy the words down or write other words you know that relate. Pick out a few words to look up or pick out the ones you know. Simple activities build knowledge.
So, I still haven’t answered the question, have I? If I have to give you an answer, I would say you should give yourself 1-2 years of steady learning to really grasp a language.
Natural ability, traveling, intensive language programs, and spending time with Spanish speakers will speed this up. The more time and effort you put in, the faster you will progress. Fluency is a lifetime endeavor, and there is always more to learn, but once you start you might just find you are hooked.