How long have you been trying to learn Spanish?
1 month? 1 year? 10 years?!
Learning Spanish to fluency is something many people dream of, but few really accomplish.
Most of us get stuck somewhere around the pre-intermediate level, and give up after a few months.
Or, many of us keep going for years, but never really progress beyond that pre-intermediate level.
I’m here to help you learn Spanish, and guide you on your path to fluency.
Who am I?
I’m Rob, and I run Spanish Obsessed (where you are now!).
I’m not a native Spanish speaker, but I am a fluent one.
I’ve been learning Spanish for over 12 years and counting, and started learning as an adult. I’m also a language teacher and general linguist nerd 🙂
Most importantly, I know how you feel!
I’ve been through all the frustrations of trying to master Spanish, and I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.
I’ve put this guide together to help get you to Spanish fluency, whether you are new to Spanish or experienced.
In this guide:
- Quick tips to learn Spanish to incorporate in your studies now if you’ve already started
- A comprehensive roadmap for beginners and intermediates alike, including what to study, how to study it, and what to expect at each stage of your progress
- Guidance about cultivating the right language learning mindset
- Tons more resources to help you in your Spanish journey
Is learning Spanish hard?
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in the USA created a language difficulty ranking to help people understand how long it takes to learn a language.
There are 5 categories, and Spanish falls into the easiest category (Japanese is ranked as the hardest), alongside Dutch and Norwegian.
According to the FSI, it takes about 600 hours of studying to reach a reasonable level of Spanish.
So, compared to other languages, Spanish is relatively easy to learn. However, most people still underestimate the time and effort it really takes to reach fluency.
We often see videos on YouTube of incredible polyglots who claim fluency after 10 hours of study, or 2 weeks.
We come away thinking that Spanish must be easy, or that we’re doing something wrong if we’re not fluent in a couple of months.
I don’t know if these claims are true (and I don’t want to take anything away from them!), but I’m not sure how helpful they are for most casual language learners.
As a non-genius language learner myself, 600 hours sounds about right for how long it took me to reach a good level of proficiency in Spanish. Assuming you can spend 3 hours a week on your Spanish, that’s around 4 years of persistent, consistent study.
This might surprise you! We’re used to getting what we want quickly, but language learning is truly an area where persistence and determination pay off in the long run.
My advice: prepare yourself for a marathon, not a sprint. Focus on enjoying the journey, rather than fixating on the destination. Before you know it, you’ll have made enormous progress.
Quick tips to learn Spanish now
Before we get into the roadmap and comprehensive plan, here are some activities you can incorporate into your Spanish studies straight away, whatever your level:
1. Learn big chunks of Spanish (aka, phrases)
Many learners keep a vocabulary list of individual words and their translations, either in digital or physical form.
This is a good start, but you’ll see immediate increases in your fluency by learning bigger chunks of Spanish: learn complete Spanish phrases, rather than words in isolation.
As you learn Spanish phrases, you’ll find that grammar “slots into place” as you learn it, and in your conversations you’ll string together these bigger chunks of language, rather than individual words.
This is a really important key to fluency: by learning phrases, you are teaching your brain to think in bigger units.
We’ve put together a guide of 95 Spanish phrases for you to learn, which will give you a good head-start.
2. Get in conversation practice as soon as you can
In the end, learning a language is about communicating with other people. In our Spanish Academy, we speak to hundreds of students who have studied for years, but have never given themselves the opportunity to practise in real life.
They’ve learned through apps, reading, and pen and paper. They can answer grammar questions, understand texts, and often have good comprehension.
However, they struggle to answer some of the most simple questions when asked by an actual person in Spanish.
You see, speaking is a synthesis of all of the other Spanish skills. It’s also an emotional rollercoaster: you need to feel the frustration of not understanding, of not being able to express yourself like you can in your first language, and be able to manage this.
Our advice: start speaking sooner rather than later.
However, it’s best to do so in a comfortable, supportive environment. You need to be able to feel safe making mistakes, not feel judged, and be encouraged rather than intimidated.
This depends on you and your personality. If you are naturally extroverted, you probably won’t have any issues diving into conversations.
However, for introverts it can be more difficult. That’s where the speaking environment plays an important role.
We suggest small classes, where you get plenty of opportunity to speak (like in our Spanish Academy…!). Language exchanges are another good way to get practice.
3. Little and often beats few and far between
Given 1 hour to spend on learning Spanish over a week, it’s better to do 4 sessions of 15 minutes, rather than a 1 hour session.
Firstly, you’ll find things stick better in your long term memory if you consistently forget and “re-learn” (if you’re interested and have a spare hour or two, check out this study: Effects of Successive Relearning on Recall).
Moreover, you’re more likely to stick with it. It’s less intimidating to know that you’re going to work on something for 15 minutes than one hour, and if you build up a habit (15 minutes a day, for example), it’s much easier to make it stick in the long run.
Remember: the key to Spanish fluency is persistence over time. Little and often beats few and far between!
4. Create a key event
Have something definite to aim for. If you know that you are going to visit a Spanish-speaking country on a particular date, it sets your motivation and gives you something concrete to aim for.
Likewise with an exam (I know which I’d prefer though!).
5. Do more writing to help your speaking
Writing seems to have fallen out of fashion in language teaching, but actually, it’s one of the most useful exercises you can do.
If you find speaking difficult, writing is a great exercise for you to try.
Both speaking and writing develop your production of Spanish, but they complement each other:
Think on the spot
Take time to get your thoughts together
Unable to self-correct without repeating yourself
Work and rework your Spanish until you’re happy with it
Get real-time feedback
Get feedback to reflect on and review in future
Work around gaps in your knowledge (paraphrasing)
Fill in gaps in your knowledge. If you don’t know a word, look it up!
If you find yourself tongue-tied when speaking, writing is a key to unlocking your fluency.
It removes the performance pressure of speaking, while still giving you an opportunity to produce Spanish.
However, writing is only useful if you can get feedback. Our Pro Community offers writing prompts, and personalised corrections and feedback from native Spanish teachers, giving you the perfect opportunity to practise your written Spanish.
6. Use the 80/20 rule to learn a lot of grammar quickly
So many of us think that studying grammar is all there is to learning a language, and that’s all we do.
There’s so much more to learning Spanish than studying grammar, and it’s tempting to think of learning Spanish as a series of grammar exercises.
This is the experience (or hangover!) many of us have from learning languages at school.
Learning grammar is important, but it’s better to get a broad overview of all of the grammar as quickly as possible.
What do I mean?
If you open a Spanish grammar book, you’ll find 30 pages dedicated to articles (el, la, los, etc).
That’s everything you need to know to use articles perfectly, but really, what do you need to be able to communicate?
Here’s where the 80/20 rule, or the Pareto Principle comes in: to communicate well enough, you probably only need to learn 20% of all of that, and that will cover 80% of the uses.
You can always go back and refine your understanding of that grammar area later, but it’s best to get a broad overview of as much grammar as quickly as possible, compared to studying each area in fine detail from the start.
So, if you find yourself spending a lot of time on detailed grammar exercises, think about whether you’ve already got a “good enough” understanding, and whether you could spend that time better!
What does this mean in practice?
Instead of reading grammar references and textbooks cover to cover (they’re not really designed for this anyway), skim through them. Aim for a “quick and dirty” understanding – you’re building an overall mental model of Spanish which you’ll refine over time.
It’s like creating a painting. The first thing you do is create an outline and rough washes of colour – over time the completed picture emerges as you refine it.
In the next section you can head to the links depending on your level. You’ll find a roadmap for beginners and intermediate – advanced learners.
How to learn Spanish for beginners: A roadmap
Here you’ll find a roadmap to reach an intermediate level of Spanish, from complete beginner.
It’s for you if you’re new to Spanish, or in the early stages of learning.
It’ll give you guidelines of what to learn and when, as well as tools for how to do so.
I’ll also talk about what you should expect as you progress, and give you tips to ensure that you succeed.
Intermediate Spanish Roadmap
As an intermediate learner, you’ll have established a base in Spanish and should be quite comfortable expressing yourself in a variety of different scenarios.
You’ve got an understanding of most of the major grammar points, and have a decent sized vocabulary (2,000 plus words).
You can understand the gist of native spoken Spanish, although you probably miss quite a few details.
You probably also feel frustrated! The points above may describe how you’ve felt for the last 3 or 4 years (or even longer).
You’re in the “intermediate plateau”, and in this guide you’ll get the blueprint to break through into advanced Spanish.
You need to change the way you study Spanish: you can’t continue studying Spanish like a beginner, learning lists of vocabulary and doing grammar exercises.
To truly break through into advanced Spanish and achieve fluency, you need to make some changes in your approach.
In the intermediate to advanced roadmap, I’ll give you a plan to get out of the intermediate plateau and reach advanced fluency.
The mindset to learn Spanish
Search online, and you’ll find people arguing about the best method to learn Spanish.
You won’t find many people talking about the mindset you need, however.
That, for me, is much more important:
Simply put, most people fail at learning Spanish because they give up.
It’s really simple! In order to successfully learn Spanish, don’t give up.
Your success depends on your persistence and attitude far more than the particular method you choose.
In this section, we’ll talk about how to develop the right mindset to successfully learn Spanish (there’s a reason we’re called “Spanish Obsessed”!).
Let’s start by giving you an idea of the ups and downs of learning Spanish, so you know what you’re in for.
The emotional rollercoaster that is learning Spanish
At some points in your journey to Spanish fluency, you’ll experience one or more (or maybe all) of the following emotions:
Learning Spanish is exciting! You’ll be able to explore and enjoy exotic new destinations and cultures. You’ll finally tick that item off your bucket list!
Once you get some initial “wins” and can order your first coffee in Spanish, or understand a headline, or simply be able to read road signs in Spanish, you’ll feel joy.
Even after 12 years of learning Spanish, I still feel joy when I hear it and read it!
Your journey to Spanish fluency will be dotted with these lightbulb moments!
Frustration is usually caused by difficulties of comprehension. In other words, when we hear native speakers for the first time and it sounds like another language.
As soon as you leave the walled gardens of textbooks and learner materials and are exposed to “real” Spanish, you’ll find that you don’t understand a lot.
This creates frustration. You’ve been studying Spanish for a while now, why can’t you understand?
Or maybe it’s a particular grammar point that just doesn’t make sense to you.
Frustration tends to be borne out of misaligned expectations, and not being where we think we “should” be.
Similar to frustration, we feel impatience when we think we should be ahead of where we are.
At the start of this guide, I mentioned that achieving proficiency can take 600 hours, or 4 years of consistent study.
We’re not used to spending that long learning anything, so impatience is a common emotion among all learners!
Sometimes Spanish just seems so hard! You might be making slow progress, and are fixated on achieving rapid results.
When those don’t arrive, you feel demotivated. Your initial motivation for learning Spanish has worn off, and you may not even be sure why you are doing it now.
You may find that you experience other emotions apart from these too!
Remember: despite the plethora of apps and programmes promising an easy ride to learn Spanish, in reality there will be ups and downs.
Simply knowing this, and acknowledging these emotions as they arise, will help enormously as you progress in your Spanish.
Failing at learning Spanish
In my opinion there is only one way to truly fail at learning Spanish.
That’s giving up entirely.
We can feel like we’re making slow progress, we can feel frustrated, or even like we’re going backwards!
But as long as you don’t give up, you are succeeding at Spanish.
I’ve said it before, but your entire goal is to not give in.
So, what are some of the reasons that we see for people failing (aka giving up) at Spanish?
So many people start learning Spanish as a resolution, thinking they will become fluent in a matter of months.
This can be true for some people (experienced and dedicated language learners), but for the majority of us mortals, it is not a helpful expectation.
Once many learners get to month 3 and aren’t realising the progress they expected, they get demotivated, and simply give up.
Haven’t set goals
If you’ve nothing to aim for, how do you know what you’ve achieved?
Having a goal of simply “learning Spanish” isn’t very useful. To what extent? To do what? In how long?
It’s good to set a big, audacious goal, that’s specific.
I did this in my quest to hit C2 (Proficiency): my big goal was to pass the C2 exam.
From there, we can break down those big goals into milestones. What points do you expect to reach on your way to your big goal?
If you want more details, check out a guide to planning your language learning and setting your goals.
We talked about all the emotions that come with progressing through Spanish.
These are signs of progress, not of failure!
However, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by this deluge of emotions, and take it as a sign that we should give up.
Knowing and acknowledging these emotions will help you to recognise them when they come.
As the saying goes: forewarned is forearmed!
What else can we do to avoid failing at learning Spanish?
Create a “Pre-Mortem” to avoid failure
It’s worth repeating: the only way we fail is by giving up. Everything else is success.
A really useful exercise is the “pre-mortem”.
It’s where we assume failure, and work backwards from there.
Let’s fast-forward six months from now.
Imagine you’ve been learning Spanish this whole time, but are now just about ready to give up.
What specifically has caused you to feel like this?
Knowing yourself, what do you think were the major (imaginary) sticking points that caused you to give up?
Completing this exercise helps us anticipate failure, and so put in place plans and ideas to avoid it.
We’ve created a free pdf for you to download, print, and fill out. Put an honest 30 minutes in, and then frame it somewhere prominent for posterity!
You’ll find it a surprising source of motivation 🙂
- Click “download” below
- Click the download icon in the pdf to save to your computer
- Fill in the spaces
- Put up somewhere prominent!
Mental models to help you learn Spanish
We’ve talked about the emotions in learning Spanish, but what’s actually going on in our brains? What is the actual process of language acquisition?
In this section, you’ll learn a few strategies and tips derived from Second Language Acquisition theories, to ensure that you’re working with your brain, rather than against it!
What is Second Language Acquisition?
Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is the study of how people learn languages beyond their native language. It’s a branch of Applied Linguistics.
It’s typically observational: Researchers look at people in the process of learning a second language over time, and observe their behaviours and outcomes.
You can’t cram a language
I lived in Valencia, Spain, for a couple of years. One of my flatmates was studying for an English exam.
He had a native English speaker (and teacher!) to practise with if he wanted (yours truly).
However, for the 5 days before the exam he chose to lock himself in his room, and “crack the books”.
Spanish (or English, or any language) is not a subject you can study and cram at the last minute, like we do for exams (although I’m not sure it’s a good idea with any subject!).
You’ll get the best out of your learning by recognising that Spanish is a complex system, used for real communication. By using it and treating it this way, you’ll make the most progress.
In case you’re interested: yes, he did pass his exam, despite his approach!
Being good at Spanish is a synthesis of skills
Bring to mind a good language learner, and imagine some of their traits.
What do you think of?
Many of us associate successful language learning with one particular skill.
Someone’s got a fantastic memory, so they must be good at learning Spanish.
Or, they’ve got “a head for grammar”. Maybe they have a natural “ear” for the pronunciation.
In reality, using a language consists of many different skills, all working together.
A good memory is helpful. Pattern recognition is helpful. Concentration is helpful. Confidence (yes, we think this is a skill that can be learned) is helpful.
I could go on…
But it’s when these skills come together that you become really good at learning and speaking a language.
If you only practise one skill in isolation, you’ll tend to lean on that more and more, and that can be to the detriment of other skills.
Aim to be a balanced language learner, and understand that to become a fluent Spanish speaker you’ll learn and use a mix of skills. You’ll also need to constantly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, to ensure that you don’t become “lopsided”!
We develop our own “working” version of Spanish
As learners, we develop an “interlanguage”.
Simply put, this is our own “version” of Spanish that we develop and refine over time, unique to us. It’s the model we have in our minds of Spanish!
It includes our own idiosyncrasies (aka “mistakes”), and is constantly re-worked as we gain competence in Spanish.
It’s fed into by everything we consume (input), and is largely subconscious.
This image helps to visualise what’s going on:
Why is this useful to know?
It helps to dispel a myth:
MYTH: You should only listen to and learn from native Spanish speakers, or you’ll pick up their same mistakes
If this were true, then surely this logic is also true:
By only listening to native Spanish, we will never make any mistakes
Obviously, this is not the case!
You can learn Spanish from both native and non-native speakers, and should look to learn from everyone.
Silver bullets and hacks: Spanish learning misconceptions
As you set out (or continue) on your language learning journey, it’s very easy to get distracted by the latest shiny toy.
The internet is awash with incredible stories of language learning gods who have reached amazing levels of fluency in ever-decreasing amounts of time.
Or, how about those videos on YouTube of polyglots effortlessly switching between 12 different languages?
It’s impressive, amazing, and yet can also be dispiriting.
Many programmes offer “silver bullets” to repeat these awesome feats of language learning: you too can be fluent in just 10 days!
My goal in this section is not to put a downer on anyone’s achievements, or even to doubt them.
Rather, I want to arm you with a few warnings about silver bullets and hacks when it comes to language learning.
Here are some common claims and misconceptions, where it’s worth taking your time to think them through:
Separate the “method” from the person
It’s easy to conflate a person’s incredible achievements and their methodology.
However, just because something works for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
Let’s take body-building as an example:
Say you want to put on slabs of muscle and achieve an adonis-like physique.
Would you walk into the gym and ask the biggest, most muscular guy (or girl) for his/her advice?
Maybe… But should you?
By following that person’s plan, you won’t necessarily achieve the same outcome. There are tons of other variables (genetics, for example) that are unique to that person, and what works for them won’t necessarily work for you. They may not even be aware of what it is they do that works for them.
It’s better to examine the method on its own, rather than mixing it up with the person behind the method.
You “don’t need to study grammar” to learn Spanish
Studying grammar is unfashionable.
Many language programmes boast of a grammar-free approach, claiming that you can develop fluency without having to study grammar.
I think what they really mean is “explicit” grammar study.
You know the sort: working through pages of exercises, memorising rules, and so on.
However, you can’t speak a language without knowing its grammar. That’s simply a fact!
Studying grammar is important, but we need to rethink what that means.
We prefer an “implicit” (or “elicited”) approach to grammar.
This diagram shows the difference:
Learning grammar implicitly is more “natural” (more on that shortly). You give your brain a chance to figure out a new pattern (grammar rule) on its own, and then the explanation fits into place afterwards, naturally.
Whenever you see a course promising a “grammar-free approach”, look at what that means. If they truly teach no grammar, I don’t think you’ll really learn the language.
What they really mean, though, is learning grammar in a different way.
Pick up Spanish “naturally”, learn “like a child”
Many courses make claims about learning a language like a child.
It’s true, children do have impressive abilities to soak up languages like a sponge. If we could replicate what they do, surely we’d have the same results?
Well, not exactly…
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is called the “critical period hypothesis”: the ideo that our brains are better able to learn a language for a period of time during childhood (up to puberty).
This theory hasn’t been proven (and is still debated), but it’s generally accepted that children make naturally better language learners than adults.
The second reason is simple: you have already acquired your first language.
Your first language hugely impacts how you view the world, and even structures your thoughts and ideas.
It acts as a filter, and when you set out to learn a second language, we “naturally” do this by comparing it to our first language.
Certainly, there are aspects of language learning which can be more “natural” than others, but look out for bold claims about “soaking up” language like a sponge, or learning in the same way as a child.
The “Correct” method
There is an academic field called “Second Language Acquisition” (SLA), which is dedicated to studying what’s going on when people learn a second language.
It’s scientifically based and peer reviewed, so is a credible and established field.
What’s interesting about SLA is that there are still many open debates. It seems that the researchers haven’t been able to agree about a lot of topics.
However, many language programmes claim that their specific method is the best…
I get it! As language learners, it’s good to know that you’re spending your time in the best possible way.
But remember this: even the latest academic research hasn’t been able to identify (or prove) the “best” way to learn a language, objectively.
My advice: don’t get too caught up on your particular method. If you feel that something is working for you, it probably is.
And remember, as long as you don’t give in, you are succeeding!
In this guide, I’ve tried to give you the most important points you need to know to be set up for success in learning Spanish. Make sure that you check out the beginner roadmap, or the intermediate roadmap, for specific plans based on your level of Spanish.
Hopefully, you’ll now feel confident that you have a plan, goals, motivation, realistic expectations, and a varied list of activities from the beginner or intermediate roadmaps.
Of course, my final piece of advice is to simply enjoy the process!
Learning Spanish is truly a lifetime relationship, and may even change your life too.