How to learn Spanish and become fluent in 6 months

My Intensive Spanish Class in Madrid – Loved it, but that’s not where I really got fluent …

As every week, I’ll try to write a post to answer some question some guiri readers asked through comments. This week, Tim asked about the best language schools in Madrid. Well, I know some, but what I know for sure, is that there’s in my opinion an effective method to learn Spanish, and schools are just a piece of the puzzle. I will present you here my method for anyone to be able to be fluent in Spanish in 6 months. It is based on my experience learning Spanish, Mandarin or Portuguese as well as research and other tests.

Before coming to Spain

First and foremost, the key here for the pre-Spain period is to learn the rules of the language, understand the rythm and be able later to get back to your books if you have an issue saying something. Get all the grammar in your head, so you will only have to reactivate it when you’ll be there. The best way to do this are language classes. If you already had language classes at school or university, reactivation can do you good through classes. But keep it intensive and short. Ge to know the basics in 1-2 months, without any oral practicing or anything.

The first goal is just to have the grammatical basics in your head, but you don’t need to know them perfectly. In fact, I failed Spanish at French National Exam, and I’m now considered bilingual by my employers. The grammar is the pre-requisite but not at all the key part in learning.

Now, get your ear used to hearing some Spanish. I would highly recommend listening to the amazing podcasts Ben & Marina make at Notes In Spanish – outstanding. Just download the beginner sessions on your ipod, and listen to it whenever you’re commuting, running, doing some ironing. At this point, it may be hard for you understand all the podcasts, but don’t worry, you’re preparing great foundations for when you’ll be in Spain.

Seeing some movies in Spanish with English subtitles would be the next step. Of course Almodovar’s movie are a must-see since most of them are in Madrid, in a Spanish people really talk in day to day lives, and represent a great example of the spirit of the 80’s Movida movement. Of course, you must see some other great movies on current Spanish society such as “Te doy mis ojos”, “Mar Adentro”.

A book in English on the Spanish culture will help you a lot. I highly recommend “The New Spaniards”, a great presentation of what makes Spain different, written by a Brit Journalist in Madrid.

Read from cover to cover a phrasebook just before coming.

At the end of this first period, of course you won’t be able to talk, but you will know all the basics of grammar, have an idea of what Spaniards think like, and a grasp of how it sounds like.

Don’t work on it more, just go to Spain. Just bring with you your grammar manuals, and buy a Vis-Ed card set.

In Spain

The place where I got fluent in Spanish: bars and other social venues !

The key objective during all your stay in Spain is to make as many mistakes as possible a day.
How do you do this ? First, find a flat with only Spanish speakers. Yes, you heard me. They can be Spanish speakers from outside of Spain, but the key point is to find a flat with only Spanish speakers. If there’s someone speaking English to you, just stick to Spanish even if it would really be easier in English.

Of course, many readers will come with their partner or family, and will not consider sharing a flat or house with other people. Well, for a couple, I would consider it. Flatshares are not only for erasmus party-goers. You can find amazing flat shared by adults and even couples, like some I’ve seen in the Justicia neighbourhood or Cortes. When living with a family, it can be harder to share of course. But keep on reading.

Another essential move is to find a way to continue working on your passion, or on a new hobby, while in Spain, but entirely in Spanish ! It has to be an activity that you love doing, but just make it in a Spanish environment. For instance, I love rugby, and I went to a club in Madrid with not a single person who didn’t speak Spanish as his mother tongue. With hindsight, I can tell you all my authentic Spanish comes from rugby. Simply put, if you love to do something, and force yourself to do it in a Spanish environment, you will learn without noticing.

Of course, if you’ll be working in Spain from day 1, get trustworthy colleagues to talk with you and always ask them to correct you every mistake you make.

These 2 moves will also make sure you meet new people and get lots of contacts of people who are also Spanish speakers. That’s where I come to my hardest advice for expats who want to learn Spanish: do not hang out all the time with other expats ! I know it’s harsh, and of course there can be exceptions, but I can tell you that if you start going the easy way, going too much to the hundred expat meetups there are, you will not learn Spanish effectively. My advice here is to keep your non-Spanish contacts to a couple of die-hard real friends.

Keep on learning with 10 vis-ed cards a day during after the first few days in the country. Buy a great book about a topic you love, but in Spanish.

And as a general rule, do not try to learn anything if you will not need it or is related to a topic you hate. The best way to learn throughout this method is to leverage all the topics, activities and people you’ll get to love !

Harness the power of passion ;)
That’s were we come to an even more controversial topic: the language schools. I believe these schools are very dangerous. Going back to class environment with lots of expats who have also just arrived and are looking for other expats to hang out and do lots of activities… The ease of just listening to the classes and sitting back while thinking you’re learning… Just remember the French, Spanish or German you learned in high school. What happened to it ? You can’t speak it even if you’ve studiend for years. I studied German for 4 years more 3 hours a week. I am now totally useless. On the other hand, I now speak fluenly Spanish, and got a job after a demanding local recruitment process after only 6 months in Spain.

I am not saying you should not go in any case to a language school. All I’m saying is you need to be very clear about your objectives compared to the money and time you are investing. A class environment does not force you to make as many mistakes as possible. Speaking in real word environment does force you. Writing a Spanish paper is easy compared to chatting at a bar with Spaniards. Yo have time, you can review what you done and correct it. And there’s no direct feedback when you write. When you talk, if you ask for it, people do correct you: they either do not get what you’re saying or they’ll just tell you the mistake you’ve done.

This is my opinion after doing an intensive course with a great teacher in a top Spanish Univerity. I was serious, committed, did all my work, but in the end, it just revived what I had learned before.

When in Spain, I would recommend invidual classes with a teacher from a school accredited by the Instituto de Cervantes. In fact, if you’re looking for an academy, I would really recommend going for the schools recommended by the Instituto de Cervantes. Erin rightly recommends the EOI, the official state schools, in her post which also gives great advice on how to get in and what’s great in EOI.

To sum up, if you have time and money to go to a school, please do it. However, do remember this will not make you speak spanish. The only way to get to spanish fluency is talking and talking in Spanish 80% of the time, making a 100 mistakes a day.

This is part of my advice to be fluent in Spanish in 6 months. I will get into more details in another post.

Do also have a look at www.guiriguidetomadrid.com, especially if you’re looking for specific examples by expats for expats of how great your life in Madrid could be :)

Please do comment, this post only reflects my opinion and experience, and I would love to hear your ideas about this !
Yours Madridly,

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This post is also available in: Italian

Posted on Tuesday, July 12th, 2011 by in How to Learn Spanish

12 responses to “How to learn Spanish and become fluent in 6 months”

  • Truly much appreciated and most importantly was very helpful for people who have or wants to move to Spain. Great work ! In addition I have few questions to ask you and I would be much pleased if you could answer them.
    First, I do not speak or understand a single word in Spanish. How much time do I need to read, write and speak moderately good Spanish if i go to an institution for learning Spanish.
    Second, I have completed my graduation from another country, to find a better or high paid job, is it necessary for me to complete my Masters from Spain.
    Thank you. Hope to hear from you soon.

    It would be also helpful if you like to share important links that can be useful.

    • Hi Selica,

      Thank you for your positive comment !

      How my post states, my experience is that you can reach a moderatly good Spanish from speaking nothing in 6 months.
      What it requires exactly is decribed in the post, but in a nutshell here it is:
      1) learn the grammar before coming
      2) come to Spain and forbid yourself to speak English – Go 100% inmersion and talk as mush as possible sharing a flat with spanish speakers for instance
      3) leverage your passion: do not learn from boring academic stuff – go for stuff you love. For instance, if you love fashion, there’s the fashion week right now in Madrid, go and read and talk and wirte aboutas much as you can everyday.
      4) make as many mistakes as you can daily and learn from them.

      If you want any more details, do go back to the post and see the details, but I hope this summary helped !

      Un saludo,

  • Great article and some great tips that make sense but I wouldn’t have thought of myself. Thanks for the plethora of link references as well.

  • Thanks a lot Pierre!
    I couldn’t agree more. I became fluent in English exactly following the same footsteps mentioned in the article. I have a question. I am going to start my work in Madrid within a month and I would like to know which quick grammar guide you recommend.
    Thanks again.

  • Hi Pierre!

    I couldn’t agree more with your advice. Especially the parts about not hanging out with other expats all of the time, and that language schools aren’t always the way to go. I studied French for 6 years in school, and I can barely say a word in French. Now I’ve studied Spanish for 9 months, and I’m already fluent! The only part I don’t really agree with is about what you should do at home, before going to the Spanish speaking country. I learned A LOT before going to Argentina, and didn’t have problems taking to Spanish speaking people when I arrived. I made a video on how I studied, check it out, I hope you like it! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4LOyJykgUI

  • Hello,

    Well, first of all: congratulations. I am from Madrid and I have to say it is really interesting and comforting to read this. I am a Spanish- English teacher and I totally agree with you in many points, such as not being stigmatize by mistakes… ¡ Equivocaos! One of the mothers of learning, as well as repetition but in a natural way as you may get by getting involve in sports, Arts or whatever you like. It is really nice to see someone like you , so involve in what it means to learn Spanish and giving so helpful tips. Thank you. Te deseo lo mejor.

  • Hi Pierre, great real time thoughts on how to learn a language I like the emphasis on immersion techniques and being very clear about what a person’s objectives are to learn Spanish for what goals…I am trying to structure a trip later this year to Spain, my goals are to walk the Camino del Santiago and spend some time in Spain before this learning the language etc. I’ll just leave it at that, and again thanks for you taking the time to discuss intelligently what it really takes to learn a language, at least on the speaking level, muchas gracias.

  • Very good article — I like following one’s passion–as a horse-crazy little girl,I taught myself the most important parts of german by learning to read a “how to ride horse” book in german.

    I might recommend “Collins Spanish with Paul Nobel” as a great audio series. I listened to them to and from work for about three weeks before visiting Spain and had pretty functional spanish for practical matter. His approach is very interesting and I felt more confident learning spanish than any other language I attempted. How can you fail when his first direction to the listener is “don’t try to remember anything I teach you”!

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