How I Passed the DELE C2—in Under 5 Years

I thought it’d be useful to share my journey from essentially zero Spanish to near-native level.

Thanks to a rare set of circumstances (and a tonne of determination), I managed this in around five years.

How I Reached Near-Native Spanish in Under 5 Years

I know what you’re thinking. But no, this isn’t a clickbait title, and I’m not a polyglot fraud. I did in fact go from knowing pretty much no Spanish – except “Hola”, “Gracias”, “cerveza” and “chicas” – to near-native level in under five years.

To start, I want to instill some realism in you. The concept of learning a language sounds beautiful, expanding and shiny, but it’s often quite the opposite.

Don’t Believe the Hype

I get mixed reactions from those who know of my Spanish level. Their attitude towards me seems to be a mixture of disbelief, awe, and envy. It’s understandable they feel this way, but usually their attitude is based on a ton of false ideas. Let me explain.

You see, the end result of a long language-learning process is pretty remarkable – effortless listening, speaking, reading and writing in the new language. It seems seamless, graceful, flowing, like a choreographed dance performance. People see this and it dazzles them.

Sure, often it feels that way from the inside too. I can listen to natives speaking at full pelt with zero effort. I can spontaneously respond in equally precise language. I can also read pretty much anything, unless it’s filled with technical jargon, and understand perfectly. And yes, it feels effortless and graceful, so much so that I don’t even realise I’m doing it.

But don’t mistake this for the journey. This is the end result. And it comes after days, weeks, months and years falling over, hitting your head, and getting back up again.

This sustained effort, this weight-lifting and sweating and hurting, is 95% of the journey. Yet nobody pays attention to it. Not even polyglot YouTubers – they prefer to make their own journey seem effortless because it’s supposedly better for marketing.

So don’t believe the hype – learning a foreign language is a steep upward curve. You’re going to doubt yourself, make mistakes, feel ridiculous, and wonder why you even bothered trying.

In my case, it was four intense years of daily speaking, listening and reading, during which I was repeatedly exposed to my limitations. Indeed, since I continue learning, this is still the case.

If you’re still with me and can stomach these harsh truths, you’re ready to learn how I did it.

I’ll divide my journey into four stages: The Early Days, Reaching Fluency, Bringing it into Professional Life, and Becoming Near-Native.

How I Passed The DELE C2: The Early Days

Let’s talk about the first six months of my Spanish journey, which started in December 2018 and culminated in June 2019, when I went to Spain for two months and saw a big spike in my language level.

I often joke that I was forced to learn Spanish. During the midst of a horrendous life crisis in 2018, I met a Spanish girl, who I’m fortunate to now call my life partner, my best friend. For the first few months, I had no aspirations of learning Spanish, but then we arranged to go and visit her parents in April 2019. To be clear – they know very little English, just like her other relatives and friends back home.

I realised that if I want to forge a connection with them, I had to learn Spanish. I couldn’t sit there and let my girlfriend play interpreter. Besides, I felt a bit lost in my life, and learning Spanish fitted well with my studious, persistent nature. This was my call to adventure, and I only had four months before our trip. But I knew pretty much nothing, and my only experiences of language learning had been obligatory French and German classes at school, nigh on 10 years before that. I had to learn, and fast.

If I had to sum up the elements of the language I worked on in these months, it would be vocabverbsstructures, and tenses.

When I was starting out, I compiled a huge list of vocab categories (days, time, animals, subjects, foods, professions, etc) and went about learning as many words as possible.

I was working in a shop at the time, a job I found quite boring, and would whisper to myself any number or colour I saw, including the colour of cars as I cycled to work. This strange ritual went on for weeks.

I’d also memorise all the words I picked up in the stone-age GCSE Spanish book that I stumbled across in a charity shop. It became a friend of mine. The long texts and natural dialogues were a huge help.

After acquiring a Spanish verb book from my mum and flicking through it, I quickly realised I had a huge task on my hands. Forget the imperfect and the subjunctive, the present tense looked horrible. HabloHablasHabláis? What is going on here?

Realising the importance of nailing the endings, I actually designed a computer programme to spit out a verb with tense and person. I’d have the task of conjugating it as quickly as possible (e.g. hablar in the present for us = hablamos). I literally did this thousands of times in the first six months, slowly increasing my set of verbs and tenses. I started out totally bamboozled by the simplest verbs in the simplest tenses, but in around six months I could conjugate any verb in any tense, including the subjunctives.

On to structures and tenses. It’s crucial you acquire a repertoire of basic structures in the early days, so that you can communicate with people as soon as possible. Short sentences like “¿Has estado alguna vez en…?” (Have you ever been to…?”), “¿A que hora hemos quedado con Cristina?” (What time are we meeting Cristina?) and “Hoy hemos ido a la galería” (Today we went to the gallery) come up so often in everyday language. Focus on learning structures, not just vocab.

But for me, what’s most important is that I didn’t study these in isolation. By April I was listening to podcasts daily, and I was reading passages of text almost from day one. And given I have a Spanish girlfriend, I also started speaking as soon as I could. If I remember right, by February we had started speaking Spanish once every two days, a habit we’ve maintained ever since.

Sure, you might not have the luxury of a Spanish partner, but there are options. Read texts out loud and record yourself, comparing your speech to audios. Do language exchanges. Chat with your teacher.

Another crucial point: though I was also going to language classes once a week, I studied at home by myself for 5-10 hours a week, plus I was speaking with my girlfriend for hours when we were together. My point? Going to a language class isn’t enough. You must, must, must study in your own time and expose yourself to the language as soon as possible.

By the time my daunting trip to meet my girlfriend’s Spanish parents was upon me, I could understand someone if they spoke at 70-80% speed, didn’t use complicated words or colloquialisms, and could communicate back, with a bit of thought. I was still scared of using the language, but I had reached a decent level, enough to chat to my girlfriend’s parents, relatives and friends without sounding más tonto que un burro.

After the trip, I continued with much the same materials I had before, and I noticed a big jump in my listening. I couldn’t listen effortlessly or understand any and all spoken language, but it was much better than before the trip.

How I Passed The DELE C2: Reaching Fluency

Over the summer of 2019, I really started to pick up momentum. Knowing I was leaving for Spain at the start of July, I took my studying up a level. I was also lucky to have a spare month before I left, which allowed me to put more hours in.

I spent two months in Spain over the summer, and that’s when I did most of the work needed to reach fluency. My first port of call was a small Basque town, around one hour from San Sebastian, where I stayed with a family for a month.

To be honest, my time in Azkoitia was a chollo. Tasked with looking after the children in the morning, I’d speak in English until around 1pm. From then on, I used Spanish all day long. I read stories, watched the news, got to know a selection of Spanish newspapers, visited museums, and even watched live bullfighting broadcast from Pamplona. All my socialising with the locals was in Spanish – even my two new European friends, a German and an Italian, were adamant that we spoke in Spanish. It was complete and utter exposure.

Without really realising it, I’d reached a totally new level. And that wasn’t the end: I left Azkoitia for Bilbao, Santander (where I asked for and sampled some incredible tapas), León (where I stayed with relatives of my girlfriend), Torrelavega, and San Martín de Montalbán, a little-known village in the region of Toledo, where I met dozens of people and was around Spanish family and friends all day long. My stay culminated in a few days at my in-law’s house in the lovely El Escorial.

Besides the social exposure, I also kept up my listening and reading. I read my stories, listened to my podcasts, and made watching the news and reading the paper a habit. I also carefully listened for new words as I scaled the streets of this foreign land.

By the end of the trip, words were flowing out of my mouth, I could effortlessly listen during most conversations, and I could get the jist of newspaper articles. I wasn’t near-native, but I’d made huge strides towards it.

Then followed a calmer period in my language studies. Between August 2019 and Covid, I studied five to six hours per week as well as speaking it every second day with my girlfriend. I continued with my podcasts and reading, and even bought a B2-level textbook to master the subjunctives. After another six months of measured progress, I was comfortably fluent in Spanish.

I remember I did some online Spanish conversation classes with fellow Brits. This was probably April to June 2020, just when Covid hit. When asked by the teacher how long I’d been studying Spanish, I responded a year and a half. The group were astounded, even traumatised. I say this not to boast, but as evidence of how far my hard work had taken me.

Bringing Spanish Into My Professional Life

The title for this phase of my journey is a little misleading. I might have written, tongue in cheek: Being Forced to Use Spanish in my Professional Life.

I was happily working as a self-employed maths tutor, gallivanting around Edinburgh to help teenagers study for their exams. It wasn’t where I wanted to be, but it was enough, and it paid way better than most people think.

But that source of income was unceremoniously cut from under my feet when Covid hit. I had to quickly think of a way to earn money. I was resistant to the idea of working full-time. Projects were cooking in my subconscious, and I needed freedom to make them reality.

I knew a few freelance translators, and I could see my Spanish was getting seriously good. The idea of working remotely also appealed, and I was already used to being self-employed. So I decided to enrol in a Spanish-to-English translation course. In the meantime, I’d pick up experience by subtitling for TED.

This marked was the point when Spanish started to become my livelihood. I had quickly found a new full-time occupation. I used subtitle for twenty to twenty-five hours a week and study for ten. I also did an online C2 certificate. It wasn’t an official DELE one, but it was thorough, and it was another item to add to my CV.

By November I’d collaborated on over 25 Spanish TED Talks. This gave me the courage to do paid translations. And I noticed another huge jump in my Spanish. I could effortlessly listen to complex talks and accurately translate them to English.

Lo and behold, my first translation project came to me – via email. It was a 300-page book on the history of Equatorial Guinea and the Spanish occupation. The pay wasn’t great, and it was outside my comfort zone, but I was dying to get experience. I decided to take it on.

After four long weeks of full-time translation, I finally finished the book and its sequel. The word count came to around 100,000 words.

The only downside? I never get paid for it. After waiting in vain for my money, I eventually did some research online, and it turned out the man who had sent me the translation was a well-known conman who’d been in jail for fraud. Ouch. I swiftly abandoned the quest for my money and retreated to lick my wounds. On the upside, I wasn’t desperate for money, I had a real-life project to add to my portfolio, and I’d learned a valuable lesson in trust.

I soldiered on, and in January 2021 landed my first real translation client, an agency offering 0.06 per word. Not bad for a novice. My journey in paid translation work had begun.

Over the course of the next two years, I was to translate texts of all kinds. Blog posts, marketing materials, training manuals – some deathly boring, some inspiring. I even worked with some big brands like Telefónica and N26.

Nowadays I don’t translate much. The rates are pretty poor, AI is gaining in prevalence, and I said no to my clients too many times. Besides, my focus is on The Great Updraft. But I actually made money from freelance translation work. That would have seemed like a dream only two years before.

Add my translation work to many more hours of study and practice, and by mid 2021 I was a confident Spanish user with enough authority and experience to do paid translation work for multiple clients. I was approaching near-native level.

Reaching Near-Native and Passing the DELE C2

We’ve reached the final stage of my journey to near-native level. I’d describe my Spanish journey in the last two years as refining and expanding my knowledge and skills. I haven’t learned anything earth-shattering, but I have continued to expand my vocab and polish my rough edges.

Over these two years, my main practice has been to listen to podcasts, both formally and informally. I listen several times, writing down new phrases and vocabulary, and making sure I know when to use them. I also continue writing down new vocab I pick up during casual conversations with my partner.

Though I write professionally in English and tend to read in English to improve my writing skills, I’ve read at least a dozen books in Spanish, and went through a period of reading El País for half an hour most days.

The milestone of this period was the DELE C2 exam in May this year. I’d been procrastinating it for some time – I always wanted to have official recognition of my level, and the DELE C2 is useful for language professionals.

After trying some model exams, I felt comfortable with my level and realised my main obstacle was familiarity with the exam. So I started preparing in February, and mostly focused on mastering the DELE C2 exam format. And only a few weeks ago, I received the all-important result from the Instituto Cervantes: APTO.

The result of all this work? I can listen and read to almost anything with ease; people in my city (in the UK) often mistake me for a Spaniard when they overhear conversations I have with my partner; and complex words, phrases and idioms roll off the tongue. I can even say my double r’s.

Looking Beyond the DELE C2

So I’ve passed the DELE C2. Time to put my feet up, right? No. That’s not how I work, and my long-term goal is to be a true native speaker.

The only thing preventing me from being one, I believe, is vocab. It’s tough to acquire the breadth of vocabulary that natives have, especially when you live in England. Well, and I might need to acquire a true Spanish accent. I think it’s pretty good. And my partner’s auntie once told me it was divino (divine). But my partner chooses to describe it as ambiguous, meaning when I speak Spanish my nationality isn’t clear.

So my goal is to gain native-level vocab and a lovely Spanish accent. I don’t have a compulsive need to keep learning, but I love discovering new things, and it’s possible I’ll live in Spain in the near future. If that comes to pass, I don’t want my vocab to limit me in any way.

I’ll keep going with my podcasts, reading, pocket-size vocab notebook and informal chat with my partner. Maybe in another five years I’ll be able to claim true native-level proficiency!


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