How to go from zero to fluent Spanish in 9 months

Hopefully there will be some useful ideas in here for everyone, even if you are just studying Spanish in Spain for a week or two, or swatting up at home. The following is based on my personal experience of going from zero to fairly fluent in 9 months:

1. Not at all essential, but…
If you can spend 9 months in a Spanish speaking country, you’re half way there! Once you get here, the following tips should really help you to speak fluent Spanish within 9 months or less…, but they will still really help if you stay at home too!

2. Get an intercambio… or four!
I know we keep on going on and on about this, but really, there is no better way to learn Spanish. You meet with a Spanish speaker for, say, two hours a week, then talk for an hour in Spanish, and an hour in your language (so they get to practice as well). Sooner of later they will become friends and take you out with other Spanish speakers for Spanish-overload nights out on the town! (N.B. Intercambios work outside Spain as well! Try an ad in Craig’s List!)

3. Listen and learn!
In my first 9 months in Spain I spent a lot of time on the bus and the Metro, and sitting in cafes, where I listened intently to other people’s conversations. I couldn’t understand a word at first, but every time I heard a new, interesting sounding phrase, I wrote it down and asked my intercambio about it next time I saw her.

4. Cinema
The first film I saw in Spain, on my fourth day here, was Saving Private Ryan. I thought it was going to be in English, but oh no, the whole thing was badly dubbed into Spanish and I understood, well, one word. But I never forgot that word (it was, for some reason quien …I really knew nothing back then). But even today, every time I see a film in Spanish, I learn something new. Last week it was that the verb librar can mean to not work on a certain day, e.g. libro el miércoles. And remember, this tip works anywhere!

5. Take a class
You can’t learn it all on your own in such a short period of time. Somewhere along the line you will need a good grounding in grammar, and a professional to correct those recurring errors your intercambio just doesn’t notice you making any more. If the teacher is boring, change class without a second thought. Boring teachers don’t teach.

6. Two things to have in your bag/pocket…
…at all times. A pocket dictionary for vocab grabbing on the move. E.g. you see a pigeon and decide that now is the time you have to know the word for pigeon in Spanish. You’ll remember it for a long time. (By the way, it’s paloma ;) ) The other thing is a sheet of paper with the current verb tense you are battling with scrawled all over it. Tedious yes, but using that sheet to test your knowledge of the imperfect subjunctive once a day knocks it into your head sooner rather than later.

7. Identify your motivation point…
… and keep it in mind at all times. This is the key. You can’t learn a language quickly without really really wanting to. Why do you want to learn Spanish? In my case it was easy, I wanted to be able to hold my own in my new home, to speak as well as friends who had been here for a while, and I wanted to speak to all those beautiful Spanish girls without sounding like an idiot. I kept these goals in mind all the time, and they really helped me develop an appetite for the language. What’s your motivation? Make it an obsession!

8. Over to you…
Any ideas? Please comment below.

19 thoughts on “How to go from zero to fluent Spanish in 9 months

  1. Geoff Harrison

    One thing I wouldn´t be without now is my pocket electronic dictionary. The first one I bought cost about 15 pounds and was virtually useless. When I moved to Spain I spent 150 euros on a good quality one and it turned out to be one of the best investments I made on the road to learning to Spanish. The really beautiful thing about it is that you can search the dictionary for all the phrases and idioms which contain the word you´re looking for, so you can see how the word is used. Better stiil, go for broke and buy one with a Spanish/Spanish dictionary too – a great way to improve your vocabulary. I always look up a word first in the Spanish/Spanish dictionary to see if I can understand the Spanish definition. If I´m still stuck, I look up the English definition.

    Great website. Thanks for producing such an invaluable resource.

  2. ian

    hi guys, love your podcasts! i think you can get marí­a moliner on cd rom – pop it in the laptop!

  3. mk

    I am by no means a spanish-speaker, but I love watching soccer games (yes, futbol) on Galavision and Telemundo. I have actually found myself learning some spanish words through context simply by hearing them over and over during the games.

  4. Edith

    Since I don’t live in a Spanish-speaking country, I have decided to create my own immersion environment. I watch TVE on a daily basis and I read Spanish books and newspapers. I also listen to podcasts and to radio programs on the Internet, and my latest addition is an ¡Pod so I can immerse myself even more, e.g. during boring rides on the bus. I’m trying to get used to Spanish accents from all over the Spanish-speaking world. I’ve got a spiral binder in which I keep a list of Spanish words and their synonyms in English (because English is my second language, and I don’t want to lose it). The only thing missing is a Spanish-speaking tutor, and I know I should study more grammar. ;-)

  5. Adrian

    Couple of things I also use since I spend quite a bit of time in the car.

    1. Listening to Spanish Music. I often find it difficult to understand very much but do slowly start picking up new words.

    2. Recording vocab onto CD and listening to it in the car. It’s surprising how much you remember after listening a few times. I’ve done the recording simply by using the Windows Sound Recorder, which while its not brilliant is free.

    Love the webiste and the podcasts.

  6. Pepino

    I’m immersing myself into the murky but fun world of the intercambio! I’ve already got one on the go that I do each week, but following Ben’s advice, I agree that one is a pitiful effort so, last night I popped an advert on LoQuo and I’ve been deluged with prospective intercambio partners all day today! It’s great. (I received 3 emails last night in the first 10 minutes after posting the ad!) Anyway, being brave, I’ve said “yes” to them all so I’m now juggling my diary to fit them all in. I enjoy my current Intercambio, so if my new ones are as good, I’ll be chatting away like a local in no time! :-)

  7. Tony

    Take lots and lots of holidays in Spain (if you cant live there) and consider “las vacaciones de viajar” where you spend a few days in one place then move on to another. Fly to one airport and back from a different one.

    This means that apart from seeing a lot more of the real Spain, you also get to use your spanish a heck of a lot more when you ask directions from the locals etc…

    I usually say to the locals…Me gustaria practicar mi espanol porque la gente en Espana son muy abierta y muy amable…. this encourages a conversation and works really well.

    Ahhh…if only we all had a Marina like Ben to banter with….ja ja ja…. absolutely great website, keep it going, I love it and have become totally addicted….

  8. Geoff Harrison

    Ben,

    The electronic dictionary I bought (for no better reason that it was the only one they had in a very well known department store when I was living in Córdoba!) is a Casio. They produce I very compact one which has Spanish/English & English/Spanish, and a rather more bulky (and much more expensive) one which has Spanish/Spanish too. I´m sure there are others just as good (some that even talk apparently!) but I´m very happy with mine. Not sure where you get hold of them in the UK.

    Geoff.

  9. bill

    This is a great list — the intercambio (number 2) is probably the most important to becoming fluent. It not only helps you practice putting your thoughts into Spanish quickly, but it’s also more fun to learn with another person.

    Other things that worked for me were using a “flash card” type of computer program to study and learn new words over and over.

    And popular radio and television (mentioned above) are very good too. Popular Spanish music is very beautiful and enjoyable to listen to, and you learn new words and good phrases while you listen. And the main thing is the music and tv are FUN. And if it’s fun you’ll stick with it. I remember when I first started listening to Spanish radio, the only thing I could understand was when they said the time of day.

    Regards,
    Bill

  10. Monica

    I have found that going on studyspanish.com is the biggest help and also just listening to other people’s conversations and sentence structure helps… if I don’t know what they said, then I look it up…….. or the book 501 spanish verbs by theodore kendris is the best spanish book ever written! How do you get rid of that ackwardness when you are speaking english and then all the sudden want to switch to spanish even though you are learning but not fluent?

  11. Peach21

    Hi.. I just wanted to know why you people are so interested in Spanish language.. I mean.. I’m interested in english because everything is in english on the internet.. every movie, almost all the things on youtube.. Wikipedia has more information in english than in spanish.. etc, also every country you go to, there is a minimal knowledge of english but not of spanish…. so.. why spanish? and why not french.. or italian, japanese?

  12. Konrad

    Here are my takes on various methods:
    1. Pimsleur. If you do all three levels, you will be able to say almost anything you need to survive, but you will not have developed very good listening comprehension. This is an excellent first step: it will make you a human phrase book.
    2. Rosetta Stone. If you do all three levels, you will develop an awesome vocabulary. Caution: Rosetta Stone does not explain anything and does not provide any grammar rules. Despite its claims, it is not sufficient by itself. Keep a grammar book and dictionary handy while you are using it. If you can afford it and understand it is only part of a complete program, it’s great.
    3. Spanish TV. This is a great way to train your ear to understand. Watch news and soap operas (telenovelas).
    4. Kids Stories. Listen to mp3s or CDs (or even old cassettes) of fairy tales and other stories you know. This will help listening comprehension. Like a kid, you will also learn lots of phrases from hearing the stories over and over.
    5. Movies. Movies are especially good if you can turn the English subtitles off or on. Watch with subtitles to understand at first, and then turn them off.

  13. Omar

    Hola,
    Very glad to find such a wonderful site for teaching Espanol. This is my first visit and feel impressed and happy. Your site gives the visitor the feeling of warm welcome. I will bookmark your site and continue roaming.
    Thank you both for all the efforts you put on this site.
    Regards, Omar.

  14. Bhanu chakraborti

    I want your written script corresponding to the radio podcasts. How would I get. Please inform me the price. Ilive in calcutta( kolkata), INDIA. tEL NO–033 2674 0019, MOB NO-9231656483

  15. Ami

    Agree with you about visiting spain for a few months being most of the job done
    An alternative for those of us who do not have this option is to watch spanish programs or listen to spanish radio programs while we are klearning

  16. Fatima Povo

    Soy de Mumbai, la ciudad en India. Me gusta mucho espanol. Me encuentré los NIS Beginners muy útil para mi propósito aprendiendo. No lo sé si puede entender mi espanol. Saludos de India.

  17. Fatima Povo

    Ben y Marina,

    Antes de en mi nota, olvido decir gracias a ustedes para sus podcasts. Muchas gracias. Saludos.

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