The Principles I Used To Get Fluent Spanish In Two Years
I’ve been speaking Spanish for about four years, and I got fluent in about two. People often compliment me on how well I speak, and they tend to think it’s crazy that an Australian sounds so Colombian. Believe me when I say that I’m not trying to brag but to encourage you. You really can speak fluently in just a couple of years if you work hard and apply a few straightforward principles.
As a language learner who’s also a language teacher, I can confidently say that they work. They helped me learn faster and not lose sight of my goal — moving to Colombia and becoming fluent in two years. They’ve also helped my friends and past students achieve their language goals.
I did end up moving to Colombia, got fluent, and lived there for three years. I’m married to a Colombian, and we now call Mexico home. I owe most of my incredible experiences in Latin America to being able to speak Spanish well. The cultural gap will always exist, but fluency enables you to shorten that gap.
But, these principles are by no means locked down to Spanish. They’re applicable across the board and if you’re already a second language speaker, try applying them (if you haven’t already) to a third language.
But let’s clear up a couple of things first:
1. these are what *I* consider to be principles. They’re based on what has worked for me, my students, and my friends in the past.
2. “fluent” is a subjective term, so bear in mind I mean my definition of fluent. Fluent doesn’t mean you’re 100% accurate; it means you’re able to express yourself easily and articulately. It means you can have a conversation about any topic and not be restricted by a lack of vocabulary or grammar knowledge.
Find your ‘why’
Before you roll your eyes, think about it. It’s undoubtedly important that you’ve defined your reason for wanting to learn a second language. Why? Because intrinsic motivations always top extrinsic ones and without realizing it, your reason could be vague, like “because it’ll earn me more money.” Heads up, that’s a shitty reason to learn anything, and it’ll almost always lead to burnout.
I’d say 8/10 of my past English students didn’t have an initial reason to learn English beyond “because I need to be able to speak English.”, to which I responded, “need it for what?”. To no surprise, they struggled to answer the question with clarity and weren’t too excited about studying.
One of the first things we did was find a more compelling reason, and then their motivation skyrocketed.
A more emotionally charged reason like “so I can finally head to Latin America, explore rural towns and experience everything more deeply” would incite much more passion than “I should be able to speak Spanish for traveling.”
Learners who have a strong desire to learn and who feel good about their progress are far more likely to continue working hard in the long term, and it’s a long road, believe me.
With a strong enough why, a language learner can endure almost any how.
Forget what you know about English
“Oh, but in English, we’d say…” — nope, nobody cares. You’re starting from scratch here. Not only is sentence structure different across languages, but many also don’t even use the same alphabet, so comparing another language too much to English isn’t going to get you very far.
I often hear English-native foreigners order at restaurants in Latin America and start with “puedo tener…” because in English, we’d start with “Can I have a… thanks”. I’m not picking on them, by any means; I used to say that too. But the reality is, no native Spanish speaker starts their sentence with “puedo tener.” Not in Latin America anyway. It’s technically correct, and everybody will understand you, but it sounds dumb.
It’s also worth noting that English is the bastard child of several other Germanic languages, particularly Old Norse, Latin, and French. It’s a total shit-show in terms of grammar and its exceptions. It’s best to forget the phrases you know in English because they rarely carry over literally to other languages.
Speak soon and often
This one sounds far too obvious, I know, but as an English teacher, I can tell you that so many people don’t do this. They know they should speak more, but they don’t.
Just as you can’t be good at cooking without actually cooking, or good at writing without actually writing, you can’t get good at speaking without, yep, speaking!
Speaking in another language is just like any other skill we learn in life. The more hours you clock, the better you’ll get. The good news is that progress and motivation are exponential. The more you speak, the more you’ll want to speak.
Speaking regularly over time will make you more confident. You’ll make fewer mistakes, and in a matter of months, your perceived fluency will skyrocket. Native speakers will be shocked at how little time you’ve been learning their language.
Two habits will bring me 80% of my progress in the new language
This principle goes hand in hand with the previous one. Ask any language teacher or learner, and they’ll tell you, without hesitation, that the majority of your progress will come from two things:
- Speaking often with people
- Studying little and often
It’s up to you to define how much is “little,” but let me tell you that it’s certainly more than five or ten minutes a day — that’s like one pushup a day. Start with 20–30 minutes a day and see how you feel. Like me, you’ll probably find that you get really into it, and pretty soon, without realizing it, you’re crushing an hour or more of study, and you actually enjoy it.
I found that starting small with the study and gradually increasing it helped avoid burnout because a small win is better than no win.
The #1 priority for the first three months is to build vocabulary
It’s said that you need between 1000 to 3000 words to have a regular conversation and express yourself adequately in another language.
You should only be worried about vocabulary for the first three months. You can learn everything else as you go because grammar is useless if you don’t have enough words to put together a comprehensible sentence.
People can understand context even with broken grammar, but they can’t understand the context if you don’t have enough words.
A general rule of thumb is: if you need to rely on charades, you need more vocabulary.
After three months of stacking vocabulary, grammar should take the wheel to put it all together and help with delivery. Better delivery means easier comprehension.
It’s usually more effective to revise what you’ve already learned (once or twice) than to learn something new.
I’m sure every language learner has learned this the hard way. In the early days of my Spanish journey, while I was back in Australia between trips to Colombia, I used to head to the beach every day with my Oxford Spanish Grammar book and study like a lunatic. The motivation was high, and I was convinced I was doing the right thing. I’d be fluent so fast!
You know how much I remembered? 10% if I’m lucky, so pretty much fuck all. A few things stayed with me, but I lost the majority of it because it was boring and had no emotional value. There weren’t even any pictures.
Sure, I was exposed to more Spanish than if I’d not read at all, but exposure isn’t always good enough. We’re exposed to cars driving by us every day, but that doesn’t necessarily make us good drivers. We’re exposed to comedy on tv, but that doesn’t make us inherently funny.
As John Medina explains in his book Brain Rules, exposure is only effective if there’s an emotional stimulus to solidify the information in your brain.
“Emotionally charged events are better remembered — for longer, and with more accuracy — than neutral events.” — John Medina.
So instead of forcing yourself to learn something new in the hopes of expediting your progress, revise what you’ve already learned and facilitate the process of solidifying that information in your brain. Because if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Having said that, you obviously need to learn something new at some point, so it’s best to revise just once or twice then move on.
If you’re considering learning another language, there’s no better time than now. We’re not going to be locked down forever, and if you have a dream to visit a particular country and fully understand the people and culture, your journey starts now, not later.
These principles will help keep you moving in the right direction on the long road of language learning. Some days will be harder than others, and sometimes you’ll feel like quitting, but don’t. Remember these principles and remember why you want another language so badly.
And more importantly, a language can’t be taught; it can only be learned. It’s up to you to put in the work and hold yourself accountable. Nobody can learn it for you.