Is it Hard to Learn Spanish? 3 Key Factors to Know

Is it hard to learn Spanish?

If your goal is to make yourself understood in simple interactions, the answer is no. In a relatively short period of time, you can learn enough to get by on a trip to Nicaragua or Argentina.

If your goal is to express yourself fully with friends, family, or coworkers, and be able to talk about a wide range of topics without even noticing you’re speaking a foreign language…. that’s another story.

Here’s the thing about difficulty when learning Spanish: it depends on your background, time available to learn, and motivation. That being said, Spanish does have its challenging parts, especially for English speakers.

Let’s take a closer look at why that might be the case and what you can do to make learning Spanish easier for yourself.

So… Why is Spanish so hard for me to learn?

Maybe you’re someone who’s tried to learn Spanish and gotten stuck. Maybe you’ve downloaded some apps, bought some programs, or signed up for classes… and it hasn’t clicked.

First of all: don’t feel bad about it. Learning a new language is challenging, and it takes a long time to fully wrap your head around it.

Consider your native language. It took you 4-5 years (from birth) of 24/7 exposure to start expressing yourself fluently. And that’s after a couple of years when only your parents can understand you!

Luckily, learning as an adult can be faster. There are 3 key factors that influence how hard Spanish is for you to learn, and how quickly you learn:

  1. Focus (an effective approach where you can concentrate your efforts)
  2. Motivation (i.e., interest and a good reason and willingness to learn)
  3. Dedication (the ability to stick with it, even when it feels like you aren’t making progress)
Chuy: a border town where Spanish is spoken on one side (Uruguay) and Portuguese on the other (Brazil), with lots of portuñol in between.

What makes learning Spanish difficult?

Depending on where you’re from, the answer is different.

If you are a native Portuguese or Italian speaker, your biggest struggle is likely to be that you mix the two languages up because they’re so similar.

If you’re a native Chinese speaker, you’ll probably find certain pronunciation elements hard, and you might struggle with how different the grammar is.

But broadly speaking, here are a few things that make Spanish challenging to lots of its learners:

  • Imperfect & Preterite: both of these are used to express the past, but the imperfect is for things that have no definite endpoint. This doesn’t exist in many other languages and can take some time to fully grasp.
  • Subjunctive: I remember being afraid of the word to hope (esperar) in high school Spanish because I knew it meant using the Scary Subjunctive. Truth is, it’s not that scary — it just takes getting used to. And it creates some interesting nuance that’s harder to express in English.
  • Listening comprehension: Spanish is a language where words run together. If you go listen to German right now, I bet you can hear when one word ends and another begins, even if you’ve had zero contact with German. Not the case with Spanish. This means learners have to put extra emphasis on understanding spoken Spanish.
  • Regional changes. The way Spanish changed once it came to the Americas, and its interaction with indigenous languages, has lead to some interesting differences from country to country. In a practical example, vocabulary related to the gas station varies significantly depending on where you are.

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Is Spanish hard to learn for English speakers?

If you’re a native English speaker, there are some additional challenges to the Spanish language. You’ve got:

Unfamiliar grammar:

  • Verb conjugations that appear daunting at first, grammatical gender where nouns have to agree (match), and we’re immediately confronted with staple words like To Be and To Know that have two versions (ser/estar, saber/conocer) in Spanish!
  • Tú vs Usted: an informal vs formal “You” exist in LOTS of other languages, but not modern English. This means — unlike speakers of most major languages —we start without any real “feel” for when to use the formal vs. informal you.

Unfamiliar pronunciation:

  • In North American English, we speak with drawn-out vowels and heavy, aspirated (air comes out) consonants. In Spanish, we have to learn to shorten our vowels and move our tongues forward on letters like N and T. Not to mention the rolled R!

Unfamiliar vocabulary:

  • At the beginner level in Spanish, a lot of core vocabulary has little to do with English: cómo estás (how are you), por qué (why), cómo te llamas (what’s your name). And basic phrases like me gusta include grammar that’s new to English speakers. Luckily, especially as you progress, you’ll start getting thousands of Spanish words for free.
Futalefú, Chile: a small town in Patagonia, on the border with Argentina.

What you can do to make learning Spanish easier for yourself.

If you’re just starting, the difficulties above are good to be aware of. But don’t let them discourage you!

Millions of people learn Spanish — you absolutely can too. Here are some tips for getting past the challenging parts of Spanish:

  1. Find one main resource you enjoy learning from. A resource can be a podcast, teacher, coach, YouTube channel, online course — anything that helps you build a foundation in the language. It should be good enough that you look forward to using that resource.
  2. Don’t try to tackle an entire piece of grammar at once. Instead, learn grammar as it arises in context, and be patient with yourself. The more you see a piece of grammar in action (whether it’s por v para, the imperfect, or the subjunctive), the more your brain is making connections between the context and how it’s used. And eventually, it will click.
  3. Don’t wait until you’re “better” to start doing fun things with Spanish. Constantly forcing stuff you hate down your throat is a motivation-killer. Instead, even if you don’t understand a thing, it’s worthwhile to watch Netflix or listen to music in Spanish, because you’re creating positive associations with the language in your brain.
  4. Look for links between Spanish and your native language, particularly with vocabulary. Pay close attention. Some are obvious: información -> information, responsabilidad -> responsibility. Others are less obvious: Durar (to last) -> duration; oscuro (dark) -> obscure.
  5. Practice pronunciation early on. It’s like muscle memory: the more you exercise and train your mouth to make these new sounds, the easier it will get. The longer you wait, the longer your pronunciation habits (good or bad) are engrained, meaning the harder it is to change them. If you speak a similar language, like Italian, this probably isn’t a big deal. But if you’re an English speaker, it can be key to making sure Spanish speakers can understand you.

Spanish is a challenge, but it shouldn’t feel like a chore

If you’re focused and have the right method, mindset, you can be having confident conversations in Spanish in months, not years. It doesn’t have to take 2 hours a day, either.

Want help taking your first steps towards conversational Spanish? Click here to learn more about the Breakthrough Spanish Challenge — a 6-week program to help you save time, learn effectively, and have your first conversation with a native speaker.

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Hey there, I'm Connor. I help motivated learners speak Spanish without slogging through grammar books or tapping through every new app. I started Breakthrough Spanish to give more people the confidence and focus to learn effectively Spanish from home. Learn more about me here.