What’s the fastest way to learn Spanish?
The short answer: immersion.
But immersion doesn’t have to mean moving to South America. You could even move to Colombia, find an English-speaking bubble, and not immerse yourself at all.
Living in-country does not guarantee that you’ll learn. But combined with proactive learning, you can make fast progress.
What do you do if you don’t live in a Spanish-Speaking country, but still want to learn? You create your own immersion environment at home.
In this post, you’ll learn exactly how to do that, so you can learn Spanish in a fun, fast, natural way.
How long does it take to learn Spanish?
How long it takes you to learn Spanish depends on 3 things:
- Your native language
If you grew up speaking a Romance language like Portuguese or Italian, you’ll learn Spanish faster than a native English speaker. A native English speaker will learn Spanish faster than a native Russian speaker.
This is because difficulty depends on how much of the language we get “for free” — similarities in vocabulary and grammar. The more distant a language is, the more there is to learn.
The Foreign Service Institute has a popular timeline based on the difficulty for English speakers. Their timeline lists Spanish as “600-750 hours to proficiency”.
600 hours could take you 6 years, or it could take you 6 months. For most people, 25 minutes a day of active study is an achievable goal. Beyond that, it’s easy to fit in 25 more minutes of passive study— listening to a podcast while commuting, reading a book, or watching YouTube or Netflix.
With an hour of exposure per day, you could go from zero to “proficient” in just over 18 months.
But note that the FSI’s standards are probably more rigorous than your own — you could very well reach a level where you speak and understand confidently in under a year.
- How much time you dedicate to learning
If you spend 30 minutes a week learning Spanish, you’re unlikely to ever make the progress you want. If you spend 30 minutes a day learning, you’re likely to make incredible progress in 6 months. If you dedicate 90 minutes a day to your Spanish, you could be holding conversations in 3 months.
In this sense, how quickly you learn is entirely up to you. The more time you spend with the language each day, the faster you will improve.
- How you learn
It doesn’t matter if you spend 7 hours a day looking at flashcards and grammar books — if you never speak, you won’t learn to speak. On the other hand, if all you do is speak — never listen or read — you could end up with great speaking skills but unable to understand native speakers.
How you learn is as important as how much time you spend learning. If you’ve spent years in a high school language classroom with little to show for it, you know this firsthand.
Learning effectively means you can get more Spanish in less time. The more relevant it is to you, the more effectively you’ll learn.
What does that mean in practice? That’s what you’ll learn in the rest of this article.
Tips on how to learn Spanish
The best way to learn Spanish is one that immerses you, gets you interacting with other people in the language, and holds your interest.
Here are 10 tips that will help you learn or improve your Spanish faster, and have more fun while doing it:
1. Create lasting motivation
It will take time for you to reach a level where you’re speaking confidently. You need lasting motivation and a plan to get you there.
Tips on getting motivated to learn Spanish
- Somewhere obvious, write down why you want to learn. Refer back to it whenever you feel unmotivated to learn. If you’re clear on your goals and reasons for learning, you’re much more likely to stick with it for the time needed.
- Let action lead to motivation. Don’t rely on motivation to strike. Focus on building a small, daily habit. The more you make Spanish part of your daily routine, the more you’ll see progress. Create a realistic plan and stick to it. Focus on doing something with the language every day, even if it’s only for a minute.
- Learn to enjoy the process. Reward yourself for practicing. Appreciate the small wins— when you use a new word in conversation or the first time you understand a line in a song.
2. Dedicate more time per day
The more time you spend on your Spanish, the faster you will learn. Everyone is busy, but we all have moments in our days where we can squeeze in a bit more learning. Waiting for public transport, waiting for someone late— any moment where you might ordinarily pull up Instagram is one where you can pull up a Spanish app, audiobook, podcast, or notebook instead.
Make sure you’re producing the language yourself too (speaking and writing), not just reading and listening. Conversation partners on iTalki are great for this, but you can also speak to yourself. One way to do this is to give yourself 5 minutes to talk about your opinion on a topic and record it.
3. Build Spanish into your life passively
It’s okay to be a lazy language learner. It’s smart! One great way to get tons of passive exposure is by building Spanish into your life in an autopilot way.
A few ways to do this:
- Set your phone (or at least social apps) to Spanish
- Create a new YouTube account/Google Profile where you only watch videos in Spanish. That way, you’ll only get recommended videos in Spanish.
- Follow Spanish speakers on Instagram, TikTok, or wherever you spend time on social media. Teachers of Spanish, influencers, celebrities, comedians, musicians. Anyone putting out content in Spanish means more Spanish in your feeds without you having to think.
- Follow Spanish musicians and podcasts on Spotify. Soon your Discover Weekly, Daily Mix, and recommended podcasts will have Spanish mixed in naturally.
- Subscribe to a blog you’re interested in (in Spanish)
4. Build Spanish into your life actively (your community)
For long-term success with Spanish, you need a way to use it regularly. If you live in Latin America or Spain, you’re in luck — it’s already built into your life (assuming you don’t live in an English-only bubble).
But wherever you are — especially if you’re in North America — your community likely has plenty of Spanish speakers.
If you don’t know any Spanish speakers, one way to use your new skills would be to volunteer with your local Latino outreach organization. These organizations have all kinds of different missions. Find one whose mission aligns with your values and reach out to see if they need help. You’ll meet new people in your area and get to use your Spanish skills to connect with and help people who speak Spanish as a first language.
5. Read Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish
I first read Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish by Joseph Keenan when I was 16. For me, it was so motivating and fun to read. The author’s writing style is lighthearted — not bogged down in academic jargon like many books.
English speakers are prone to making certain mistakes in Spanish. We confuse words like embarrassed and embarazada (pregnant). We pronounce vowels, r’s, l’s, n’s, and t’s all wrong. We resort to the same responses (sí, or está bien) when there are a hundred other ways to express agreement, disagreement, or ambivalence.
Keenan’s book gets you past all that. You learn how to sound less like a gringo and more like a local.
6. Take an interest in the regional varieties/accents/pronunciation
Spanish has tons of regional differences. This can seem intimidating at first, but it’s what I love most about the language. The different accents are fun to listen to — you can challenge yourself to guess where someone’s from when you hear them speaking Spanish.
And there are interesting stories behind the differences from one Spanish to another. In Mexico and Central America, for example, many food-related words come from the Nahuatl or Mayan languages. Meanwhile, in many places in South America, those same words have Inca (Quechua) ancestry. This leads to cool differences like aguacate (avocado) in Cuba and palta in Peru, or elote (corn) in Mexico and choclo in Chile.
Immigration patterns left Argentina and Uruguay with very different accents than Colombia and Ecuador, not to mention Spain. In the U.S., Spanish spoken in Los Angeles is much more Mexican-influenced, whereas Spanish in New York tends to sound more Puerto Rican. At least a dozen countries in Latin America use vos instead of or alongside tú, to mean you – a result of the Spanish spoken by Spaniards at the time of colonization, but no longer used in Spain.
Get curious about all these differences. The more you learn, the more interesting the language becomes, and the more fun you’ll have with it.
7. Learn phrases, not words, and learn them in context
When learning a language, I don’t look at lists of the “100 most common words”, or “500 most used verbs”. Some people advocate doing that as an “80/20” approach to learning, but I find that approach to be boring, which makes me demotivated.
Instead, learn words as they appear in context, and learn them WITH the context.
When noting new vocabulary to learn, always include part of the sentence with it.
So, rather than “el bus”, you might write “el bus llega”. Instead of “comer”, you’d write “qué vamos a comer?” (or whatever the native speaker in your book, podcast, or video said).
Writing phrases rather than words gives you the context and grammar to use the words naturally — without having to think about how to say them or conjugate them.
As a beginner, important words will be built into whatever program or resource you’re using. As an intermediate or advanced learner, important words are the vocabulary used when talking about your interests.
This way you’ll learn the vocabulary you will use (your own custom “80/20”). Vocab from topics you’re interested in will stick better. If you love photography, follow blogs and YouTube channels on photography in Spanish. If you’re learning to cook, follow YouTube channels sharing recipes in Spanish.
As you watch or read, type new phrases into a simple spreadsheet. At the end of the week, upload the new phrases to Anki, and you’ll have new phrases to review in your downtime. All the while, you’ll be absorbing grammar naturally.
8. Input, input, input
As soon as you’re at a level where you can understand some content meant for native speakers, spend as much time with that content as you can.
You can start with young adult novels or books you’ve read in your native language, as well as podcasts and YouTube channels meant for learners.
As you progress, you can move on to new novels or non-fiction, podcasts meant for adult native speakers, YouTube videos on whatever your interests are, and Netflix with subtitles.
This doesn’t all have to be “study time” — it’s okay to consume this content in a relaxed way. Watching 3 episodes of Club de Cuervos is helping your Spanish, even if you don’t take notes.
9. Plan a trip
What better way to motivate yourself than to have a trip on the horizon?
If you can, start planning a trip to a Spanish-speaking country. If you know you have 3 months until you’ll be in Bolivia, you’ll have a concrete reason to double down on your efforts for that period.
This is also a great excuse to learn some of the regional vocabulary and find examples of native-speaker accents on YouTube.
10. Recognize your successes
It can be hard to see your progress day-to-day. But by looking back at your past efforts, you can notice progress more clearly.
That’s why it’s beneficial to keep a record of what you do:
- A journal where you write in Spanish
- Recordings of you speaking with your tutor
- Voice memos on your phone talking to yourself about a certain topic
When you look at a journal entry or watch a conversation session from 3 months ago, it will be obvious how far you’ve come.
In the meantime, recognize your small wins. Notice when you use a new phrase for the first time. Celebrate your first conversation with a native speaker, and the first time you express yourself without any trouble.
Here are 5 challenges you can try today to incorporate Spanish into your life:
- Follow a recipe in Spanish. Could be something brand new, or something using the ingredients you happen to have. Find a recipe that looks good that happens to be in Spanish and follow it!
- Find a podcast episode you want to listen to and go for a walk.
- Spend one day this week using the internet in Spanish as much as possible
- For one day, write all personal notes in Spanish
- Watch a short YouTube video and talk about it out loud. Time yourself, and share your opinion for 3 minutes. Record it in a voice memo on your phone.