For students looking to travel and/or study abroad, the idea of going to Spain without knowing how to speak Spanish can seem very daunting. Spoken language is the primary way in which we communicate with the world around us; letting go of that ability—even for a short period of time—is frightening. However, complete immersion is also the best way to truly learn a language. Being in Spain with little to no Spanish knowledge will force you to have to learn Spanish in order to communicate properly. This will greatly increase the speed at which you are able to learn the language.
If you study abroad in Spain and are serious about wanting to learn Spanish, resist the urge to try and communicate in your native language. While you are there, spend a good portion of time studying the structure of Spanish; vocabulary is much easier to pick up on in society than the linguistics. Within a matter of days, you will begin to pick up on important terminology, such as how to ask for directions and how to order food. Always try to ask your questions in Spanish first, even if you know the structure will be incorrect. Native Spanish speakers will be glad to see you trying, and will be happy to help you.
It is a very good idea to take at least one Spanish class if you are studying in Spain, even if the language is not the primary focus of your degree. This will allow you to learn the basic fundamentals of Spanish as well as providing opportunities to ask questions to an instructor. If you do this in addition to frequently attempting to speak Spanish with native speakers, you should be able to hold an elementary conversation within one month of arriving in Spain. If you were to try and learn Spanish solely from a classroom setting outside of a Spanish speaking country, the same achievement could easily take upwards of two to three months.
Depending on the length of your time in Spain, and the amount of time you dedicate to learning the language, it is quite possible for you to become proficient in Spanish within one semester. Speaking with native speakers will introduce you to cultural slang and idioms that are typically not taught in the classroom, which increases your likelihood of eventually becoming fluent in Spanish. Depending on the individual person, fluency can take anywhere from six months up to several years.
The definition of ‘fluency’ differs drastically depending on who you ask, but it is generally considered to be when you can think in Spanish without having to translate words from your native language first. While vocabulary is important, having a good grasp on the structure of the language, including cultural slang, is typically deemed more important. The latter are skills hard to acquire without spending a decent amount of time in Spain. No matter what your goal is for your Spanish comprehension level, learning Spanish while in Spain is definitely the easiest and fastest method.