“How long is a piece of string?” asks my husband when he gets a question without a clear answer. It’s annoying! “How long does it take to learn Spanish?” is a question that makes me want to answer with my husband’s response, though.
I hear this question frequently from my students, and it’s hard to answer because there are some variables like what level of fluency are you aiming for?
Since most people mean fluent enough to be able to have conversations with Spanish speakers, I think they are a little discouraged when they hear that it takes a lot of time. On the plus side, it can be really easy to learn Spanish because our brains are designed to acquire language! Check out this post for more info on acquiring language.
I’m using the words “learning” and “acquiring” interchangeably in this post. Learning a language refers to learning the grammar and how the language works, not necessarily how to communicate with it. Most people don’t mean this when they say they want to learn a language.
Most people mean they want to be able to speak the language and have people understand them. So they actually mean they want to acquire language. Since I know most people mean they want to communicate in Spanish when they ask how long it takes to learn Spanish, I’m going to use learning in the same way.
I get a little frustrated when I read ads or posts that say, “Learn Spanish Fast!” or “Be Fluent in 30 Days” because I think it’s a little misleading. Are they studying Spanish every waking hour?
And what do you they mean by fluent? To make sure we’re on the same page, here is a brief description of proficiency (or fluency) levels from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL):
There are three sub-levels: Novice Low, Novice Mid, and Novice High. Speakers in this level speak with just words or phrases that have been memorized. Not really where anyone wants to be when they’re asking how long it takes to learn Spanish.
There are three sub-levels: Intermediate Low, Intermediate Mid, and Intermediate High. Speakers in this level can create with the language using topics they know well such as daily life. They are not using memorized phrases. They can use language they have learned in a new way to speak with others. They speak in sentences (usually in the present tense) and can handle survival situations.
There are three sub-levels: Advanced Low, Advanced Mid, and Advanced High. Speakers in this level can have conversations about themselves and others. They can speak using the past, present, and future. They know enough language to be able to speak in paragraphs.
Speakers in this level can discuss their interests as well as explain complex things in detail. They are able to speak easily for a lengthy period of time with accuracy and without hesitating for extended periods of time.
Speakers in this level speak Spanish with accuracy and are educated users of the language. They can use cultural and historical references and can speak persuasively and hypothetically.
The above descriptions are from this more detailed ACTFL guide, but this handout called Taco Talk created by Sarah-Elizabeth Cottrell has the levels broken down in a way that is easier to understand.
I’m creating lessons that build on one another because I want our kids to be able to reach Intermediate Mid by the time they’re done with the lessons. In this level, speakers can survive in a Spanish-speaking country and can talk about themselves, home, family, daily activities, interests, physical needs, and social needs such as food, shopping, travel, and lodging.
To help kids reach this level, I’m focusing on the most commonly used Spanish words based on A Frequency Dictionary of Spanish by Mark Davies so that our kids can talk to Spanish speakers whether they’re traveling to a Spanish-speaking country or helping someone in their community.
How Long Does It Take to Learn Spanish?
Now that we know the proficiency levels, how long does it take to get there? ACTFL has a chart with the hours and levels of proficiency.
ACTFL doesn’t even include hours for this level. lol
This level isn’t much more than a Novice speaker and takes about 240 hours. One year of instruction for a class at our high school is 140 hours to put this in perspective. So it could take about 2 years of high school Spanish to reach the Intermediate Low level.
Intermediate High takes about 480 hours.
Advanced Level: This can take about 720 hours.
There are no hours listed, but examples of speakers at this level are educated native speakers and non-native speakers with extended educational or professional experience with the language.
There aren’t hours listed for this level either, but examples of speakers at this level have at least 17 years of professional or educational experience in a Spanish-speaking country or community.
ACTFL based these hours on a class of 1 – 4 people with an immersion setting, so I would plan on it taking a little longer to reach these levels. An immersion situation is more intense than high school classes or teaching our kids at home.
There aren’t hours for Intermediate Mid, so I’m guessing about 360 hours based on the information for Intermediate Low and Intermediate High.
Am I actually going to track these hours? Nope. But I have an idea of how much I will need to create to reach that goal. I’ve planned each lesson to be at least 2 hours completed over a week. If you include reading children’s books in Spanish (and you should be!), then it’s more time.
I’m not totally sure how many weeks I will have lessons for since I’m still creating lessons. There’s still more vocabulary that kids need to know. I’ve created about 25 lessons so far, and I have *tons* of ideas for more lessons so I’m sure that I will provide enough resources for our kids to reach that 360 hours.
Plus, after I finish lessons to help kids reach at least the level of Intermediate Mid, I plan to keep creating things to help kids stay there. If you don’t use it, you lose it! And after spending this amount of time learning Spanish, I don’t want my kids to forget it.
Everything I’m creating uses strategies based on language acquisition research, so you know you’re spending the time well and will make progress in learning Spanish.
So how long do you think it’s going to take to learn Spanish? Once you know how fluent you want you and your kids to be in Spanish, you can get an idea of how much time it will take you to reach your goal. If you haven’t started teaching your kids Spanish yet, check out my free Spanish for Kids Starter Guide and begin today!
P.S. Are you looking for a quick and fun way to help your kids start learning Spanish? If so, check out my free Spanish for Kids Starter Guide! You can immediately use any of the 9 simple tips to introduce your kids to Spanish. Know what the best part is? You don’t have to know Spanish to use it!