When you say you want to learn Spanish, then I assume you want to eventually become fluent.
Everyone seems to have their own definition of what fluency really means, but it can generally be boiled down to two different levels:
- You can understand about 95% of what you hear or read about everyday topics. For more complex or technical subjects, you don’t understand as much but you can still get the gist of what’s going on.
- You can comfortably hold a 1-on-1 conversation at a normal speaking pace and you can usually get your ideas across regarding a variety of topics without having to repeat yourself or stop to think too much.
- Your pronunciation is clear and accurate, and you’re easily understood by native speakers.
- You can understand 99-100% of anything you hear or read, regardless of subject matter. This includes all jokes and cultural expressions.
- You can express yourself spontaneously and precisely in complex situations involving groups of native speakers. You can accurately communicate emotions and subtle shades of meaning.
- Your pronunciation is perfect. You can hold a 2-hour conversation with a native speaker and afterwards they wouldn’t be able to tell that you didn’t learn the language from birth.
In my opinion, the majority of people wanting to learn Spanish should aim for “conversational fluency” because it is very achievable for everyone.
Frankly, most people are never going to reach “native-level fluency” because it takes exponentially more work to get there, and the added benefits of which may not be worth it.
Best-selling author and polyglot Tim Ferris puts it this way:
“To understand 95% of a language and become conversationally fluent may require months of applied learning; to reach the 98% threshold could require 10 years. There is a point of diminishing returns where, for most people, it makes more sense to acquire more languages (or other skills) vs. add a 1% improvement per 5 years.”
Of course, there is nothing wrong with trying to become fluent at a native level. But as a beginner, aiming for a more achievable goal puts less pressure on yourself and can save you a lot of frustration.
So when it comes to the question of how long does it take to learn Spanish, we’re talking about becoming conversationally fluent.