For many learners, achieving well-defined fluency goals is an important motivational factor in the learning process. It’s much easier to work towards a singular goal than to chug away with no endpoint in view. One question many new learners might have, then, is how long it will take to learn Spanish. The short answer? There is no one answer. It’s up to you: frequency and length of study sessions, quality of study, and your specific goals will determine how quickly you reach your desired proficiency level. If that seems like a cop-out — and it might! — I’ll go into a little more depth. Measuring how long it takes to “learn Spanish” is a pretty complicated question, and you might need to redefine the parameters.
The first complication in answering the question “How long does it take to learn Spanish?” is that learning a language isn’t really a finite process, and it definitely isn’t a short one. Of course you’ll hit certain benchmarks and achieve certain levels of proficiency, but the abstract idea of learning a language is nebulous and massive. Was learning your first language a cakewalk? Probably not — in fact, some studies suggest that it takes you from about birth to age 12 to fully develop vital skills in your native language, with ongoing acquisition of complex grammar after that. One important question to consider is what “learning Spanish” really means to you.
Varying sources reveal just how many different ways there are to interpret the question of how long it takes to learn a foreign language. The United States Foreign Services Institute, which trains the US foreign affairs community for service abroad, suggests that adults who are native English speakers can expect to learn enough Spanish to speak with structural accuracy, command sufficient vocabulary for the majority of interactions, and attain general comprehension with about 600 hours of practice. Adult learners with the FSI are able to achieve this over a course of 23 to 24 weeks, but they are expected to spend 25 hours a week in the classroom and an additional 3 to 4 hours per day on self-directed study.
Other sources paint a slightly different picture. One study of students in California and Canada learning English as a second language found that it takes, on average, 3 to 5 years to develop oral proficiency, and 4 to 7 years to develop academic proficiency. While these two benchmarks aren’t the easiest to compare directly*, it’s clear that the answer to our titular question isn’t a cut-and-dry one.
Why the differences? While obvious factors such as age and time spent studying are mitigating factors, perhaps the largest difference is how each source defines proficiency. The study of English-learning students states that, despite the ability to converse, students in the early stages of learning do not have a true native command or grammatical understanding of the new language: “all studies speak of formulaic utterances, conversational strategies, and a highly simple code. This simple code is sufficient for everyday social contact, and often gives the impression of amazing conversational fluency in these contexts, but it is not the elaborate, syntactically and lexically complex code of the proficient language user.” In other words, academic studies differentiate between the ability to comprehend and converse and the ability to truly understand the way the language operates.
For you as a learner, the 600 hours proposed may be more than sufficient if you’re looking to communicate while traveling or even in most day-to-day situations. Having ready-to-use phrases and conversational strategies to fall back on is actually an incredibly effective way to understand and be understood even when your grasp of formal Spanish grammar and syntax is still in its infancy. The real lesson to be learned is that languages are complex systems, and mastery or even true fluency may take years to achieve. That said, the more you communicate in Spanish, the more opportunities you will create for yourself to enrich your understanding. Even if you think you have a long way to go on the road to learning Spanish, getting out and practicing will help you develop a more nuanced understanding by allowing you to experience the language in a practical setting.
*Footnote: These two studies are difficult to compare directly: FSI’s criteria looks at the number of hours an adult student will need in the classroom, while the study of ESL learners measures in school years. Students learning in the classroom will likely have a less intense study schedule than Foreign Service learners, but will also be subject to a more immersive experience. Rather than providing specific time frames, these studies should be viewed as two points demonstrating a wide range of answers to the question of how long it takes to learn Spanish.