An Intermediate Roadmap through Spanish

A complete plan to advance beyond Intermediate Spanish

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Rob Ashby

Rob Ashby

The Spanish Obsessive

Here’s a roadmap for breaking out of the intermediate plateau, and into advanced Spanish.

You’ll find recommendations for what to do and what not to do, and I’ll prime you on what to expect along your journey.

We’ll look at goals you should focus on as an intermediate Spanish learner, and practical ways to achieve them.

We’ll examine the challenges you’ll face and how to get over them, and some important changes you should make to your Spanish studies now that you’ve reached the intermediate level.

In this guide:

How do you know you're intermediate?

Let’s take a look a the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which outlines 6 stages of learning a language to proficiency:

PROFICIENT USERC2 (Proficient)
C1 (Advanced)
INDEPENDENT USERB2 (Upper intermediate)
B1 (Intermediate)
BASIC USERA2 (Pre-intermediate)
A1 (Beginner)

As an intermediate learner, you’ve reached the B1 level.

Here’s the Council of Europe’s definition for what you can do at the B1 level:

Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

Notice how this focuses on what you can do, rather than what you know.

That’s hugely important in learning Spanish: it’s about what you can do with the language, rather than how much of it you know.

From personal experience, here’s what the B1 level “feels like”:

  • I feel like I understand a good proportion of native Spanish, but am frequently lost and frustrated
  • I can read through and understand simple texts with no difficulties. I often try more complex, native materials, but find these hard work.
  • I can communicate well enough to get things done, although conversations with native speakers are hard work (for both of us!)
  • I have a decent size vocabulary. I recognise all of the most frequent words in Spanish, although I often come across words and phrases that are new to me.
  • I feel like I have a reasonable knowledge of Spanish grammar, or at least the main concepts. I have familiarity with and recognise all of the tenses, although cannot use them all accurately in conversation. There are still many smaller grammar points I don’t fully understand, and the tougher areas of Spanish grammar (for example, the subjunctive) are still extremely challenging). However, I know they exist!

What you should know as an intermediate Spanish learner

If you’ve reached intermediate level in Spanish, there are some really important things you should be aware of!

You still have a long road ahead of you…

To truly reach the higher levels of Spanish (C1 and C2) takes a long time.

A lot longer than it takes to go from A1 to A2 (beginner to pre-intermediate).

You see, when we start out, there are lots of easy wins.

You can learn 20 verbs, a few common phrases, and you’ll find that you’re equipped to deal with a range of different scenarios in Spanish.

However, at the higher levels, the easy wins have all gone. We’re faced with the tasks of building a large vocabulary, refining our grammar, and developing spoken fluency and accuracy to much higher levels.

It takes about 30 to 40 hours to go from complete beginner to pre-intermediate (A2).

It takes 300 to 400 hours to go from C1 (advanced) to C2 (proficient).

Of course, these are just rough estimates! It depends on how and what you study, your personal aptitude, and many other factors.

Just remember: progress will feel slower now, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist!

Progress through Spanish
Progress through Spanish feels slower as you continue, but in reality each “level” contains a lot more to learn than the previous

Your attitude is still the most important thing!

As I mentioned in our Learn Spanish guide, the most important factor in your language learning is your mindset.

This powers your perseverance and persistence.

Remember: the only way you fail is by giving up. Everything else is progress!

How progress feels

We know that progress is slower.

But, it also feels quite different.

At the beginner stages, everything is new, and every lesson we learn a huge, important area of Spanish.

Once you’ve covered all of the basics, you’re left with refining and polishing everything you know, which is what takes a much longer time.

Progress at the intermediate level will not feel linear!

Do you know the phrase “one step forward, two steps back”? (did you know that Lenin invented this phrase?)

That’s how language learning beyond intermediate Spanish sometimes feels.

Courses assume linear progress, but the reality is we constantly forget and relearn as we progress

Progress feels slow, but you’ll recognise it when you look back in months and years, rather than days and weeks.

Goals for intermediate Spanish learners

What should you be aiming for as an intermediate learner?

Advanced Spanish

Aiming for C1 (advanced Spanish) is a reasonable aim for most committed Spanish learners, wherever you are and whatever your age!

Let’s take a look at the Council of Europe’s description for C1:

Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

How do you know when you’ve reached this level?

You may just be content to self-evaluate, but if you’re serious (and need a concrete goal) I’d recommend the SIELE exam.

I took this exam a couple of years ago. My goal was to hit C2, but I didn’t realise the exam only measures up to C1 (yes, I did get the C1 level!). Of course, I assumed that I would have achieved C2 😉

What to do as an intermediate Spanish learner

Identify your weak points

We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and Spanish is no exception.

In fact, in Spanish, these tend to be very marked indeed.

Why?

Because as we learn, we are naturally better at some things than others. We also enjoy certain activities more than others.

Over time, we practise more of what we are good at, and less of what we are bad at.

That leads to lopsided learning

This is when our gains and losses compound over time:

These are examples of real students who joined our academy (we’ve changed the names):

John

John has a tremendous knowledge of Spanish tenses. He scores 100% in advanced tense conjugation tests, and has worked through grammar exercises.

However, when asked ¿de dónde eres? he was flummoxed, and got confused between ser and estar. He interpreted this as “where are you?”, rather than “where are you from?”.

He didn’t recognise the sound of the verb, or the fact this was a very common, set-pattern question.

Why?

He’d focused a lot on his knowledge of grammar, but had neglected speaking and recognising common patterns in his aural comprehension.

 

Caroline

Caroline can talk, and talk!

Given a question in Spanish, she’s not shy – she’ll be the first to answer, and usually has a lot to say.

We love that, of course!

However, she’s hard to understand. The interference from her English accent is so strong that sometimes it’s unintelligible.

She didn’t realise that her Spanish accent needed a lot of work, and focused on fluency.

It’s easy to stick to our entrenched study patterns, and neglect the areas that need work.

However, we need to take time to recognise those areas we’ve neglected. Here’s how:

  • Think about what you do spend a lot of time doing. This can help you figure out those areas you don’t (typically, the opposite).
  • Get feedback. Ask your teacher or conversation partner to be honest with you and let you know about those mistakes you keep making.
  • Take an exam! When I took my SIELE exam, I was surprised by my lower score in one of the listening sections, which revealed to me an unknown weakness.
 
 

Challenges (and solutions) for intermediate Spanish learners

The challenges you face as an intermediate Spanish learner are different compared to a beginner.

You’re more aware of the scale of everything that you have to learn. You’ve moved from beginner-level “unconscious incompetence” to “conscious incompetence”:

The four levels of competence as you progress through any skill

As a beginner, you don’t know how much you don’t know. In a way, this makes things easier!

In the intermediate levels, you’re now more aware of just how much Spanish there is, and how much of it there is to learn.

Here are some of the key challenges as you progress through intermediate Spanish:

 

Building your vocabulary

There are a lot of words in Spanish. 93,000, in fact.

You don’t need to learn them all, of course, but to speak at C1 level you probably need 10-15,000 words in your working vocabulary.

What’s more, you need to learn how to accurately use these words, which is actually the bigger challenge.

The methods and techniques you use to build your vocabulary at this level are different. You won’t hit 15,000 words by rote-learning them all, even if you are a memory champion!

We’ll talk more about developing your vocabulary later, but for now, know that this is one of the most significant challenges you’ll now face.

 

Avoid fossilization

Fossilization! That’s one of my favourite words.

It refers to those mistakes you make that you keep repeating. Over time, these become embedded, and correcting them becomes a huge challenge.

Have you ever met someone who is not a native speaker of your language, and who keeps making the same mistake with one word, or grammar point?

That’s fossilization in action.

The thing is, we don’t know what we don’t know.

You’re likely making many mistakes in your Spanish. Some of those you know about, and can correct – these are “slips”.

Others, however, we don’t even know we’re making. These are called “errors”.

In order to root out your errors in Spanish, you need feedback. You need a teacher or willing native speaker to call you out on your errors.

I’ll give you an example from my own learning:

A teacher I took a few classes with called me out on one of my own “errors”. I kept using the imperfect ending, when really the preterite would have been more suitable.

He took the time to explain the mistake I was making, and I went away and reflected on it. Every time I wanted to express a similar idea, I would pause and make a better choice between past tenses.

 

That’s how we root out our mistakes, before they become permanent errors through fossilization!

 

Speaking more naturally

As a beginner, if we speak at all, it tends to be either set phrases or roughly translated English.

To native ears that sounds unnatural, even though it may be understandable.

As intermediate learners, we need to move away from “translated English” and more towards “natural Spanish”.

This means moving beyond grammar rules and vocabulary lists, and noticing the way Spanish speakers express ideas and concepts in a broader sense.

You’ll start to notice interesting and surprising uses of verbs (quedar is a great example of this, where Spanish speakers use it with all sorts of different meanings), and over time this filters through into your own Spanish.

It’s a bold claim, but I really believe that our whole world-view shifts when we do this. We understand concepts differently, and see things from another perspective. Pretty deep, but Science agrees with this idea.

How do we do this?

Here’s a really useful activity, which I’ll call “double-translation”:

Double Translation Exercise

  1. Choose a paragraph of Spanish, taken from native text. Read through it, and make sure you understand all of it.
  2. Translate it into English. You can cheat here – use Deepl (we think it’s the best translator).
  3. Translate it back into Spanish. Do not cheat here! Don’t use a translator, and do not refer to the original text.
  4. Compare your translation with the original. Where there are major differences, consider whether these are simply mistakes (ie, incorrect Spanish), or a different “way” of saying things.

In the final step, really look at those areas of text where you translated a different way into Spanish. This will help highlight those concepts in Spanish which you could say in a more natural way.

It’s helpful to review your translation with a teacher to make sure you haven’t made any mistakes (this will also help with fossilization!).

 

Alongside the double-translation activity, aim to consume native Spanish materials. Over time, you’ll pick up more natural Spanish simply through volume of input.

 

Getting regular speaking practice – aka, speaking Spanish…

Practising your Spanish frequently is essential at any level, but especially important the more you progress.

There’s also a fundamental shift in attitude here.

We need to change our attitude, from “practising Spanish” to “speaking”, or “communicating” Spanish.

It’s no longer an academic object to be studied, but a living, breathing language, made for communication with real people.

You need regular conversations in Spanish, with real people.

Look to broaden out who you speak with. Move beyond the “walled gardens” of the classroom, and aim to speak with a range of people.

Intercambios are great for these, and websites like Conversation Exchange can help you find language partners. Just Google “Spanish language exchange” 🙂

Aim for conversations in Spanish at least once a week, preferably more.

 

Start, stop, continue

Compared to learning beginner Spanish, we need to make some changes to our language learning habits and routines.

Here’s what you should start, stop, and continuing doing to progress through intermediate Spanish:

Start

Consuming more Spanish input

As you progress through Spanish, less becomes explicitly “teachable”.

What do I mean by this?

At some point, you’ll have covered all of the tense system, and the easily learned rules that cover grammar.

What becomes important are those little things, like the way that words fit together (known as collocation), or the best way to say something in a certain context.

These can’t be easily taught.

By increasing your Spanish input, you’ll start to acquire the language, and these small bits and pieces will also be picked up. Your brain will automatically get a feel for the language, and you’ll see that you pick up lots of Spanish through incidental learning.

 

Pushing your comfort zones to develop and expand your fluency

Fluency is actually a skill you can practise.

Have you noticed how you’re more fluent in certain areas than others? You can probably talk about yourself and your family until the cows come home.

However, can you take someone through a recipe? Or, explain what’s wrong with your car in the garage?

To build fluency and expand our vocabulary, we need to seek out topics beyond the everyday.

 

“Switching over” to Spanish to recreate immersion

Ask someone the “best” way to learn Spanish, and you’ll probably hear that full immersion is the best way.

That means that every day, you are seeing, hearing, reading, speaking, and consuming Spanish (typically because you live in a Spanish speaking country).

However, it’s not the act of living in a country that creates this. Immersion is still a decision which you have to take.

And, you can recreate a lot of that immersion yourself.

Things like:

  • Searching for Netflix content in Spanish before English
  • Buying a Spanish recipe book, and doing some of the recipes
  • Switching your phone over to Spanish (annoying, but it works!)
  • Getting into Spanish music
 

Simply think of those things you do in English, and see what you can change over to Spanish!

 

Stop

Now that you are an intermediate Spanish student, there are certain activities that are less beneficial to you now:

 

Active memorisation

You can stop using your SRS or flashcards now. At the more advanced stages of Spanish, you acquire vocabulary rather than memorise it.

The challenge is not so much in learning actual words, but in choosing the right ones to use, and using them naturally and correctly.

You do this through extensive reading, listening, and general consumption of Spanish input.

It’s really quite magical: your brain is programmed to acquire languages!

 

“Working through” grammar exercises

If you’ve read our beginner guide to Spanish [link], you’ll know that I’m personally not a big fan of simply “working through” anything, let alone grammar exercises.

I’m not completely against grammar exercises (I’m referring to those big books of exercises, where you work through a page per day): if they are presented in context (so, address a real communicative need, and presented at the right time) they are great.

I’ve just never used them, personally, and still have reached a high level of Spanish.

I think you can spend your time better, especially at higher levels, than working through grammar exercises.

 

Using graded readers

There is a very rich wealth of Spanish literature, films, and pretty much everything else out there.

While it’s a challenge, to truly progress to advanced levels of Spanish you now need to change the input you’re using to be truly native.

That means:

  • Books written by native Spanish speakers, for native Spanish speakers.
  • Newspapers
  • Films (you can still use subtitles)
  • TV shows (Netflix has some pretty good programmes in Spanish now)
  • Anything else!
 
Try to phase out your use of input designed chiefly for learners (such as graded readers), switching over to authentic materials.

Continue

Generating accountability

Accountability is key to keeping you motivated.

Once you hit a higher level, it’s easy to assume that you can go it alone and don’t need tuition.

This may be true, but we see students who often lose their way, as without a class, teacher, and other students to keep them accountable, they simply stop their studies.

On the other hand, we have lots of students who join our classes simply to keep themselves accountable!

 

Your daily habits

Make sure that you still spend time on Spanish each day – it’s good to continue your routine, even if the activities are different.

As we saw in the graphic previously, small amounts of progress each day lead to compound growth over time. 

After 6 months, these small improvements add up tremendously!

But, you still need to show up every day (or whatever frequency you’ve chosen!).

 

Speaking Spanish, regularly

We talked about the importance of actual Spanish communication (rather than “practising”), but it’s worth repeating!

You won’t reach high levels of Spanish by simply studying more chapters of a textbook. You really need to get out there and speak.

 

Referring to reference materials when needed

I’m talking about dictionaries, grammar guides – basically, anything you turn to when you don’t understand something.

At the intermediate level and above, so much of your learning will be incidental, rather than deliberate. You’ll pick up more by looking up concepts and grammar points as they crop up in your Spanish input, rather than systematically working through exercises.

 

Final thoughts

I’ve put everything I know about progressing to advanced Spanish in this guide, but I suspect it’s still incomplete.

In a way, that’s how your Spanish journey will be: incomplete.

I say this not to de-motivate you, but as encouragement.

You’re never truly finished learning Spanish. And, that’s the true joy of it.