How long does it take to learn Spanish? How long does it take to learn any language? I hear these questions quite often. There is no simple answer.
The US Foreign Service Language Institute (FSI) published some numbers about how many hours required to learn different languages. For Spanish the number was 480 hours, based on classroom instruction. But people don't just learn languages in the classroom. Very often factors outside the classroom are more influential.
There are five factors that can influence how long it takes to learn a language, regardless of whether you study in a classroom or not. Four are within your control.
How many hours a day will you spend with Spanish?
This is perhaps the most important consideration and does not refer to how many hours you spend in a Spanish language classroom. It means how much time do you spend listening, reading, speaking or writing in Spanish.
It can be listening on your phone while walking the dog, reading, watching movies, listening to songs in Spanish or being engaged in a conversation in Spanish. In some ways, exposure to Spanish outside the classroom can be more intense than exposure inside the classroom, unless you are lucky enough to have one-on-one instruction.
If we use the FSI numbers, if one person spends three hours a day with Spanish, the 480 hours amounts to 160 days, or less than six months. If another person spends one hour a day with Spanish, it will take 480 days, or around a year and a half. If you spend less than an hour a day, it will take much longer.
Do you speak a language that is similar to Spanish?
Similarity can apply to vocabulary, grammar or pronunciation. Portuguese is very similar to Spanish in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but somewhat different in terms of the sounds. Greek is very similar to Spanish in terms of pronunciation, but quite different in terms of vocabulary and grammar. Spanish speaking people will learn to understand Portuguese quickly, but may speak with a heavy accent. They would take a much longer time to learn Greek, even though they can acquire good pronunciation almost immediately.
The greatest advantage comes from similarity of vocabulary. Spanish and English share a lot of vocabulary. Most of the words are of common Latin origin. Acquiring new vocabulary is the most time consuming part of language learning. It simply takes a long time to get used to new words. When we begin a language, the new sounds and the new combinations of sounds, seem strange to us. Spanish has fewer sounds than English and it can seem as if all these Spanish words resemble each other. For the brain to get used to this takes time. But as a speaker of English you have a head start.
How much do you like Spanish?
Do you like the sounds of Spanish? Do you like something about the history or the culture of countries where they speak Spanish? Do you have Spanish-speaking friends? Is there someone you would like to be involved with romantically who is Spanish speaking? Do you like movies or TV programs or music in Spanish? Do you have a favourite Spanish speaking singer or movie star?
The more you can answer yes to these questions, the faster you will learn. Language learning engages many parts of our brains. Your emotional commitment to a new language not only influences how hard you study, but it also influences the efficiency of your learning.
Have you had the opportunity to live surrounded by Spanish?
There is nothing quite like being thrust into an environment, a real life situation, where you need to use Spanish. The sheltered environment of the classroom is not as valuable as a real life Spanish speaking experience.
You may well be quite reluctant to use what you have learned when confronted with real Spanish-speaking people. However, if you can force yourself to overcome this shyness, you will take a big psychological step forward. Real life exposure also lets you know where your gaps are, and sends you back to your various Spanish learning activities with renewed determination to improve.
Why not plan a trip to a Spanish-speaking country, and maybe include a few weeks at a language school? I have always found it best to go to the country where the language is spoken, not when I start in a language, but after I have achieved a level where I can take better advantage of being immersed. In other words, when I already understand a fair amount and want to push myself to the next level.
There are many resources available on the Web such as Unlimited Spanish and LingQ that will get you started. Plan to put in at least six months on your own, and then, if you can, set yourself the goal of going to a Spanish-speaking country as a reward.
How confident are you that you will become a fluent speaker of Spanish?
Your attitude will have a determining influence on your language learning progress. Your determination to succeed and your commitment to staying the course will depend largely on whether you can visualize yourself achieving fluency, even before you achieve. In fact, when you begin your learning, you should have a clear picture of the end result. Imagine yourself conversing freely with Spanish speakers, and enjoying books, movies and television programs in the language. Once you are able to engage in these activities, however imperfectly at first, your Spanish language skills will just take off.
More from Steve Kaufmann:
If you have not yet had the experience of having become fluent in another language, give yourself the benefit of the doubt. If you want to climb a mountain, and don't think you can make it to the top, the chances are you won't.
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