I am aware that I have a way of doing things that is unconventional. My study abroad experience is of course no different. I have elected to do a full calendar year abroad rather than an academic year, as you may be aware from reading my blog. It is gloriously entertaining to watch the faces of people at the university recognize me from this winter, scratching their heads and asking "Estuviste aqui antes, no?" "You were here before, weren't you?" I am certain that my situation is new for my program, and is probably new for the university I attend. Already I have encountered some kind of hick-up in the university email system related to my situation.
Another amusing reaction I receive is how impressed my previous acquaintances are with the level of Spanish I have reached in such a short amount of time. Thinking about it, I have been studying the language since last June, more or less. I took eight weeks of intensive Spanish over the summer in 2011. That fall semester I took the first term of second year Spanish. At the end of which I could confidently introduce myself and ask for the bathroom, but could not hold any form of spontaneous conversations. My first semester in Barcelona saw some improvement, but not as much as I had hoped four months would bring. The real turning point, I discovered, was the second time I enrolled in intensive courses. I spent one month with a handful of others speaking and practicing Spanish four hours a day, five days per week. At the same time I was meeting about twice per week with a Peruvian woman for language exchange. By the beginning of July I was talking politics and far above a B1 level in Spanish.
At this moment I feel the need to explain that in Europe, your linguistic level is measured on a six level scale. A1-C2. With A1 being someone who knows next to nothing, and C2 being an educated fluent speaker. A B1 is someone who can have basic conversations and convey ideas, but only on limited subjects and in simple sentence structures. C1 would be generally considered fluent with no higher education. For a fuller description, pop over to wikipedia and search for ways to measure language ability. They also have the American scale to compare with.
I took the month of July off from classes, for my trips to London and the village, but continued daily practice with my brother in law, O, his family, and the local college students with whom I went out on weekends. Especially with one specific young man. The second half of August and the first week of September I spent in more intensive classes, where they placed me as a high B2 or low C1 (the group was small and we were quite mixed).
Now, back in Barcelona, I am enrolled in five classes taught entirely in Spanish and speak daily with my host family in the language.
When it all comes down to it, there are three important steps, I believe, to learning a language.
1. Get a practical base: That is, take a class that teaches fundamentals and a good deal of vocabulary.
2. Talk with someone: Once you can understand the basics, build the complexity by talking, if possible, on a daily basis with a native speaker. If you are too shy to talk much, find someone who likes to talk. It will be good for you to just listen, sometimes.
3. Use it in daily life: Listen to music in your new language. Watch movies, talk to friends, and read the news. Immersion is the fastest way to learn. And that means using the new language as if it was your first.
I believe that with full immersion the average person could reach a B2 level in around six months. That would be 20 hours a week of intensive course work (with 10 to 15 hours of practical homework outside of the class), four hours of conversation with a talkative native speaker, and an additional 5 to 10 hours of media or "fun," listening, watching, and reading. In short: 39-49 hours per week of the language you are trying to learn. (Or 936-1176 hours total.) Obviously most people cannot give up that kind of time all at once. But this is my theory on learning a language quickly. Like anything else worth doing, it takes time, effort, and a will to succeed.