If we had a FAQ section, this would definitely be the top question. At some point, all students ask themselves how long it will take to become fluent in Spanish. There is not a single, universal straight-forward answer to that, but we can give you an estimate of how many hours of studying you’ll need to achieve fluency.
How many hours of studying do I need to speak Spanish fluently?
Since you’re reading this article, we’ll jump to the (quite obvious) conclusion that you are able to speak English. This means that, for the sake of this article, we’ll estimate the amount of time it would take for an English speaker to learn Spanish. Before we begin, we also need to establish what we consider fluency. There is professional proficiency, which describes an independent speaker capable of holding their own in formal and informal situation. Then there’s native-like fluency and bilingualism, which means you can pass as a native. Ready?
… according to the CIA
Let’s start with the big guns: the CIA. American spies attend class 6 hours a day for 5 days a week, which amounts to 30 hours a week. For a language like Spanish, the course catalog lasts 26 weeks, coming to a total of 780 hours of studying - and we’re not factoring in personal study time. Of course, there spies are expected to decipher messages in Spanish, be able to immerse themselves in a Spanish-speaking environment and - sometimes - pass as locals.
… and according the ACTFL:
If that is too much of a conspiracy for you, let’s move on to the American Council for Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL). The ACTFL divides languages into 5 different levels: novice, intermediate, advanced, superior and distinguished. The first 3 categories are further divided in 3 subcategories - professional proficiency will be roughly equivalent to mid-level Advanced. They also categorize languages by how “hard” they are for a native English speaker.
Spanish belongs in group I (the easiest), along with French, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian (closely related Romance languages), German, Indonesian and Swahili. They then estimate that students need around 480 hours to achieve an Advanced level - plus personal study time. If this sounds like a lot, cheer up: languages in group IV will need approximately 1320 hours. Just in case you’re interested, these are Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
In case you’re learning Spanish for professional reasons, this should be enough to give a well-rehearsed speech in Spanish, write a report, make visits abroad or build up a dialog with business partners. Of course, we would still recommend that a translator is in the room if you’re about to sign on a big trade deal. Likewise, local knowledge and insight is always a great idea for advertising - especially in a language like Spanish, which has so many variants.
…and here is what the US Department of State has to say about the matter.
However, if you’re aiming at more than professional proficiency, the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute offers a more accurate estimate. The Foreign Service estimates that an adult needs about 360 hours of studying to reach the B1 level (of the CEFR). In case you’re not familiar with it, this is an intermediate position: you should be able to understand the main points of a news report, for example, have simple conversations and produce a simple text, like an email. Which, if you’re learning Spanish to enjoy a bright, sunny European holiday in Barcelona or Seville, is more than enough.
But if you’re aiming higher, then you’ll have to face a learning curve from the B1 level to B2 (upper intermediate/advantage). You’ll need somewhere between 25% (90 hours) to 60% (216 hours) of the time you’ve spent so far just to complete B2 - it varies with your motivation, your growing exposure to the language and the amount you can spend immersed in it. On average, adults need 600 hours to reach a C1 or C2 level, which is true proficiency: you might even sound like a native if you have a knack for accents. Ok, so not quite a Mata Hari, but still less than the 780 hours the CIA suggests and requires.
On a final note, we’d like to remind you that the amount of time it will take you to become fluent in Spanish depends on a lot of factors. The learning curve from beginner to intermediate levels isn’t the same for everyone! Some people are naturally prone to languages, others aren’t. Your age, your motivation, your previous exposure to the language, your previous knowledge of a Romance language and the structure of your native language all factor in. But one thing is sure - we’ll be on your side a 100%.