Beginner (nearly zero speaking or reading ability)
Time required: 1-2 years. So you are starting from 0: quite an audacious task! But no se preocupe, it can be done (several of our club members have done it).
A general outline of your tasks:
1. Basic grammar and vocabulary (3/4 or 1 year to develop competency). Taking classes will be immensely helpful for this endeavor, since grammar and vocabulary memorization can become tedious (consider the LISP program at UCSD). This is usually the toughest part of the process, and some students lose hope: don’t! You will learn basic verb conjugations, the various past tenses (habitual and complete), the various ways of forming the future tense, the necessary vocabulary skeleton to put your thoughts into words, and of course the more dreaded subjects such as the subjunctive (si yo fuera), and reflexive verbs (a mi no me gusta indeed). This part is truly the worst, but it is critical to establish a grasp over these core competencies.
2. Acclimatization and innate learning (concurrent with conventional learning of the language structure, but then requires anywhere from ½ to several years afterward depending on what the goal is). While you are studying the language in the conventional sense, you will slowly overtime begin to develop an innate ability to both hear and speak Spanish: this is not something you can just learn, but instead involves logical patterns you will just automatically begin to use and understand. You can’t just think back to your grammar lessons from class: you will need to be able to actively apply them in real time, and this can only happen once you have established a deep and almost automatic grasp of the language. You will automatically begin to develop this in your initial studies, however you will need to continue for a significant amount of time afterwards to reach true fluency. This can be learned by exposure: books, audio books, TV shows, and any other medium that can increase your exposure to the language as possible, so that you can begin to automatically apply the rules and logic of the language for both hearing and speaking. The time frame for this part depends greatly on the level of exposure as well as the desired level of fluency: for someone living in a state of 100% exposure (for example living in a foreign country) the time frame is reduced; in addition, a higher level of fluency will of course require a greater amount of dedicated time.
Summary of Recommended Actions:
1. Spend ¾ to 1 year of time in a conventional class setting or self teaching with a course to learn the grammatical foundation of Spanish as well as to grasp basic vocabulary and spoken/reading/writing capabilities.
2. As you begin approaching the end of the first objective, begin immersion: start reading books entirely in Spanish (Harry Potter, etc.) or listening to audio books CONSISTANTLY (everyday!). Try and make it something enjoyable so that you can stick with it. Initially make notes of new words and expressions that you see, although overtime you will just use it to keep the language fresh in your mind. Depending on what level you want to achieve, your actions from here on out will determine how fluent you will be: achieving near native level will require relentless commitment (such as living abroad for a while), but simply achieving enough competency to understand and be understood may require less of a commitment.
Intermediate (can speak and read, but not well, additional grammar, vocabulary, and speaking/reading practice necessary)
1.) Grammar and advanced vocabulary fine tuning (1/4 to ½ year) + from ½ to several years of Acclimatization and innate learning. At this point, the student will probably still need to brush up on missing aspects of their grammar, since a foundation in this is critical: however less time will probably be needed, so a more accelerated approach may be possible. However the acclimatization period will probably need to still be extensive, since they haven’t reached fluency of any kind yet, indicating they will still need a significant amount of time applying their skills after they have brushed up on their basic grammatical foundations.
Advanced (can speak and read well, but may need help with being more fluent)
Conventional Grammar lessons are probably unnecessary at this point: instead conversational lessons and self teaching to increase grammatical breadth, vocabulary size, and general fluency can be helpful. Simple extensive exposure may be all that is needed, in other words interactions with native speakers.