I wanted to know. I googled that exact question, “How long does it take to learn a new language?” And every time I did, I got a variety of answers: 3 months, 6 months, 1 year. No one could tell me how long I had to keep at it, until I could say, “Si, hablo espanol!”
What I have come to realize is that you can’t put a time on learning a language. There is no 3 month mark for everyone, when they feel comfortable having a conversation with someone in the street, or going to the store by themselves. There is no 6 month mark, where everyone is able to give a presentation in another language or talk comfortably with someone on the phone. To my dismay, there is no time table, because everyone learns at a different pace and everyone’s situation is different.
While this isn’t the answer you want to hear or what I would like to admit, these are a few things that helped me pick up Spanish more quickly:
1. Surround yourself with native speakers (who don’t speak English) – What I have found is, that if they can speak good English, they are happy to speak English with you. But, at the end of the day, that’s not helping you learn. If you can find speakers who don’t speak English, then you are forced to communicate with whatever words you have.
For example, Santiago’s aunt doesn’t speak a word of English. Well, I guess she knows “yes” as she pronounces it like “jeesss”, or “ok” as she says “okayyyy…” long and drawn out, making fun of us American valley girls. She has invited me over multiple times to cook Colombian food, have lunch, and speak in Spanish. Not only did this help my Spanish tremendously, being one-on-one with someone who didn’t speak English, but picked up a few Colombian recipes as well!
You can’t fall back on English, if the other person doesn’t know English. These are key people to help you advance in learning a new language.
Jump in and take a bite! [Picture of me here with Aunt Margarita]
2. Start reading books – Even if they are children’s books. Begin to broaden your vocabulary, looking up new words, adding them to your mental dictionary. As you continue to study and learn a language, it’s critical to keep building your vocabulary and sometimes it’s easier to see the words written down, before incorporating them into your language base.
3. Watch the news – This is tough, particularly without subtitles, which is usually the case in watching the news. But every time I went to the gym, I would put on CNN in Spanish, just to begin to train my ear. And while the first few months of learning Spanish and doing this, I didn’t get much out of actually understanding the news, in the long run it helped by comprehension.
4. Force yourself to speak – I’m a quiet person and introverted by nature, so when I’m around people I don’t know very well I tend to keep to myself. This part was the most difficult for me. Speaking up in a language I didn’t know very well made me even more shy and anxious. I was nervous about not saying thing correctly, and I worried about not having the words I wanted to say. I didn’t want people to judge me based on my ability to communicate in Spanish.
Currently, I work with two Venezuelans, who have really pushed me to speak in Spanish. They correct me when I’m wrong and explain to me why you say something one way, versus another. They are patient and kind with me, and they know what it’s like to learn another language.
What I have realized is that people don’t mind if you make mistakes, if you want to learn, you have to keep trying and stop being so hard on yourself.
Here are my two Venezuelans below: my teachers, co-workers, and friends.
5. Find a good language school (where you like going to) – If you wake up every morning excited to go to class, then you are going to get a lot more out of it. It’s important to find a school where you can connect with the teachers and other students.
Here in this picture below is one of my Spanish teachers and another Brazilian student, on a day where we had to bring in food from our country and explain the history behind the food and how to make it. I made some banana bread and explained it origins in the US from the great depression, when women had leftover bananas and limited other food, so they would make it into bread. A fun and interactive activity – eating and speaking Spanish.
People always ask me, if it was difficult to learn Spanish, and I never quite know how to answer that. Yes and no. Yes, because it takes time and patience. No, because I wanted deep down in my heart to be able to communicate, and I genuinely was excited to speak it.
So I have to say I’m sorry….I don’t have the answer to the question, “How long does it take to learn a new language?”
Ultimately, it is up to you to decide.