How long does it take to learn a language?
In today’s fast-paced world, there’s lots of emphasis on instant gratification. The world of language learning is no exception.
Publishers of language materials – whether books, audio-visual courses or apps put emphasis on quick results.
Language schools often do the same.
Let’s face it. The promise of speed sells.
Attaining fluency in a foreign language you’ve had to learn as an adult is one of the most satisfying achievements you could have. With such a wondrous prize, we want to be taken in by promises of fluency fast.
Language teachers and bloggers may be less focussed on the quick sell, but we too have a tendency to downplay the scale of the task that faces the novice language learner. Sometimes, it’s as if we’d prefer you not to ask “How long does it take to learn a language?”.
After all, we love languages and love what languages have brought us.
We want you to have the same.
In a world where so many people believe that they will never be able communicate in a foreign language, we “language encouragers” don’t want to frighten the already very nervous horses.
We want you to get started all for your own good.
We point out the low-hanging fruit.
We point out the “hacks” to get you off up and running quickly.
The sooner you can use a language to get basic things done the more your confidence and appetite will grow (we hope).
There comes a point, however, when reality bites.
Everyone’s agreed it that learning a language takes time and effort.
Just like so many of life’s most worthwhile things.
As the English saying goes: how long is a piece of string? The answer to the question “how quickly can I learn a language” depends on a number of variables: the two most obvious are the level you want to achieve and the language you want to study.
First, let’s look at level.
Language attainment levels and time estimates
One of the most commonly used scales of language attainment is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which runs a scale from A1 (beginner) to C2 (mastery or proficiency).
In the US another widely used yardstick is the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale which runs from Level 0 (no proficiency) to level 5 (native/bilingual proficiency).
Some people may only want a “tourist” grasp of a language.
That’s A1 on the CEFR for Languages (maybe Level 0+/1 ILR).
If that’s the case, you maybe need 80 to 100 hours.
If you are looking for a either a “working knowledge” to “get by” in most concrete situations, you want to aim for A2 or B1. That’s ILR 1+/2.
Time estimates for getting there range about 200 to 400 hours (bottom of A2 to top of B1).
A higher level of fluency – top B2 (upper intermediate) into C1 (advanced/operational proficiency) (ILR 2+ to 3+) is said to take 550 to 900 hours.
We’re giving hour ranges here because we’ve been looking at band of attainment (e.g. somewhere in A2 to top of B1) and because different educational bodies have given different estimates for the language(s) they are involved with.
What’s your target language?
The CEFR for Languages was developed mainly for European languages, most of which are members of the Indo-European language family.
Those are the languages that are English’s closest relations.
They have a distant common ancestor so share underlying structures. Much of the vocabulary has also developed from the same beginnings.
That’s obviously not the case for Indonesian or Swahili.
A major determinant of the answer to the question “How long does it take to learn a language” is, then, how close that language is to English (and any other language that you already know well).
Languages vary in grammatical complexity (viewed from an English standpoint), so that some Indo-European languages are more difficult than others.
German or Icelandic are very close relatives of English but have much complex grammar than English (or than their common relatives Swedish or Danish).
The Slavonic languages such as Russian and Polish are not brothers and sisters of English, but they are – like French or Italian – first cousins.
Nevertheless, the Slavonic have a rather complicated case system and their verb system is in several ways rather different from what’s found further west.
Then there’s the whole issue of a language’s sound system. Are there strange new consonants to master (as in Arabic or Georgian)? Are there tones (Chinese, Thai)? Maybe the language even has clicks (Xhosa).
A different writing system will also complicate the task.
A new alphabet is one thing. The system’s the same as our Latin one, though.
You can learn the Russian or Greek alphabets in an afternoon, ok, maybe two.
Georgian, Armenian may take you a few days longer. But not many.
But the system may differ more significantly and so will take longer to learn.
Your language may have an “abjab” system (shows only consonants – the basis of the Arabic writing system), for example.
Most time-consumingly of all, it may use a “logographic” system where each character represents a word (Chinese, Cantonese…).
Taken together, the interplay of all these linguistic elements determine how objectively “hard” or “easy” your language is.
The FSI Language Difficulty Ranking
The Foreign Services Institute (the US State Department’s agency for training US diplomats) ranks languages by difficulty taking both the linguistic and cultural gap between English and the target language.
They use five categories.
Category I (languages similar to English) require 575-600 hours of study (or 23-24 weeks full- time). These are European Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish etc) and the Germanic ones (Danish, Swedish, Dutch/Afrikaans Norwegian – not German).
Category II requires 750 hours (30 weeks) and is just for German.
Category III (languages with linguistic or cultural difference with English) require 900 hours (36 weeks). Here there are three languages: Indonesian/Malaysian and Swahili.
Category IV (languages with significant linguistic or cultural difference with English) need 1100 hours (44 weeks). This is the largest category. It includes some Indo-European languages such as Icelandic (which I affectionately refer too as “German on speed”), Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech etc) or Greek.
It also includes the Finno-Ugric languages (Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian), many African languages and Semitic ones (Hebrew, Amharic).
Then there are a host of Asian and African languages.
Category V (languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers) which require 2200 hours (88 weeks). Here there are five languages: Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean.
Not all languages are covered by the including two of mine, darn it!
You may have noticed that the hour totals for the most popular European languages are lower than the CEFR.
This is maybe because the FSI Uses Interagency Language Roundtable scales for the proficiencies of reading and speaking only.
More time would be needed for other skills such as writing well, to say nothing of specialist translation or interpretation abilities.
The time estimates of the FSI table for the different categories are open to criticism, for example for not taking sufficient account of the maybe unrepresentative sample of learners typically on their courses or variations in methods.
There’s often debate around which languages belong in which category, as well.
All the same, it’s generally accepted, that you’re looking at roughly one or two thousand hours investment to get to C1 level in a foreign languages.
Time and language are not the only variables, of course.
Let’s have a quick look at three other important ones.
Methods can make a difference
Method matters mainly in a negative way. If you’re using a bad method it could really slow you down. So, I spend a good deal of time thinking about methods on this site – and will do more in future.
You should try out different methods to find out, first hand, what works for you.
When you find something that seems to work, though, just don’t chop and change too much.
Persistence in something – anything – which involves good input and output practice is more important than the perfect or even optimal method.
Here’s the thing, though: while there are various good methods out there, there’s no one, magic method that’s going to speed things up significantly.
If there was, we can be darned sure the FSI would be using it….
Don’t forget though that the FSI students are in taught in very small groups (three or four) or one-to-one. Whatever the method, you need to take responsibility for your own learning. Don’t rely just on large group classes or expect the teacher somehow to learn the language for you.
Intensive or extensive study possibilities?
You may have great methods and teachers but there’s one advantage in the speed stakes that FSI students have one big advantage that you may not be able to replicate.
For them, learning language is a full-time job. They can devote their days to “intensive” study.
Think about it, though. If you do have the opportunity to study full-time FSI style, you could be at a very high level in the most difficult languages in just a year and a half.
That’s a wonderful short-term prize if you’re a student thinking of what to major in at college (most language majors don’t clock up so many hours, though – you’ll need to supplement your tuition during semester time and during the vacations).
It could be a dream come true if you’re somebody who’s built who is thinking of taking a career break.
It may be just the new focus you need if your career is coming to an end and you’re thinking of learning a language as a retirement project.
The rest of us will need to forget about the FSI week totals and look at the total number of hours and spread them “extensively” across a longer period.
In a moment, we’ll do the sums.
First, a quick mention of aptitude and motivation.
The bad news is that some people are better endowed than others with one or several of the abilities that help with language learning.
The good news is that even if we’re short in very useful abilities such as the ability to mimic accents or an above-average working memory, we’ll all have some predispositions we can bring to the party – social skills or a deep interest in the country, for example.
Plus, some basic cognitive abilities can be trained and some improve with practice.
We’ll come back to this another time
Motivation is linked with interest which is linked with the ability to notice – which feeds into ability again. So motivation could affect how long it takes you to learn.
Motivation may be even more important than ability as you try to get fluent.
Motivation’s main – of course essential – contribution will be to determine whether or not you stay the course.
It won’t speed you up much, though.
With time on your side….
Unless you’re learning a language very closely related to one you already know (say Italian after Portuguese), there’s no getting round that it’s always going to take you one or two thousand hours of focussed effort to learn a new language well.
But hey, set against your life expectancy, that’s nothing!
Look at it this way:
Say you’re twenty-two years old. I’ll give you eight hours a day to sleep. That means you’ve got 338,720 hours to play with till you’re eighty.
Ok, I’ve ignored leap years and I’m not letting you earn a living, eat or go to the loo.
Nevertheless, you get the point: if you can’t find the time to get fluent in Arabic or Chinese, you obviously didn’t really want it badly enough.
Come to think of it, you’ve time to do 169 languages (@2000hrs each) 😉
How many years will it take me to learn a langauge when I’m working full-time?
Most of us can’t afford to take a year of two off for intensive language study, FSI-style.
Most of us do need to take toilet breaks.
We need to go back to those figures ball-park total hours figures.
We said we’d need 400 hours for a good working knowledge of, say, French Spanish or German.
Imagine you spend thirty minutes a day focussed effectively on your language.
We’ll give you a day off.
So, that’s three hours a week.
Progressing at that rate, you could clock up the 400 hours you need for a “good working knowledge” in just over 133 weeks.
That’s about two and a half years.
It’ll be less if you’ve already got a basis from school.
It’ll be even less if you’ve already learned another language.
It’ll be even less still if that other language is closely related to your first (e.g. you’re learning Italian after French or Dutch after German)).
Say you want to get to an advanced level in French or Spanish (C1).
This requires about 600 hours.
Say you put in three and a half hours a week. You could do this by studying thirty minutes every day, or thirty minutes each weekday, an hour on Saturday and Sunday off.
You’d have reached your goal of speaking French of Spanish at a high level in just over three years.
For German, requiring 750 hours, you’re looking at just over four years.
For Russian – at 1100 hours – it’s six years to fluency.
Remember, that’s to get to the heights of C1.
Most people are happy with a good B2 level and you’d be feeling real progress and enjoying using your language at a lower level much sooner.
Of course, if your goal is to get reach the FSI’s estimated 2200 hours required for fluency in Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Korean, your at a pace of three hours a week pace you’re going to need fourteen years.
To me, that’s a rather demoralising time scale (though, come to think of it, I’ve been learning Russian, German and Welsh far longer than that).
To speed things up, how about some reverse engineering?
Say you set yourself the goal of becoming an advanced speaker of Chinese, Arabic or Japanese in five years.
If you maintain a steady pace, that’s 440 hours a year or just under eight and a half hours a week.
You do forty-five minutes each week day. You could study regularly first thing in the morning before other duties kick in. If you did forty-five minutes or 3.75 hours in total, you then need to do 4.71 hours at the weekend.
If that’s too much, you could divvy things up like this:
You do the weekday work and just two hours at the weekend, giving you a total of 5.75 hours a week.
Over a year that more relaxed weekend regime leaves a shortfall of 440-(5.75 x 52) or 141 hours.
You make that up by attending intensive residential courses several times a year.
A big commitment? Yes. Overwhelming? It doesn’t have to be.
Getting fluent in a language is a big commitment, to be sure.
Still, when we break down the figures, it doesn’t look so overwhelming.
Life would sometimes get in the way and, in practice, you’d probably be more flexible from week to week (sometimes more, sometimes less).
Yet this sort of time investment is something you could plan for. If it’s really a priority, you’ll have to rearrange your life to some extent.
You’ll know you need a language habit.
You’ll want to use the best methods.
You’ll want to work as far as possible with materials you find interesting.
You’ll find teachers you get on well with and get to know.
You’ll have exchange partners and other ways of ensuring a wider accountability and community.
You can set clear milestones along the way and celebrate each stage of the journey.
You’re in for the long haul.
You know that when it comes to learning a language, as with so many other seemingly ambitious goals, people tend to overestimate what they can do in a year… but underestimate what they can do in five or ten.
Here’s the paradox: once you have realistic expectations about how long it takes to learn a language you’ll be less likely to get discouraged.
More: the further you get in, the less the time you’ve spent is likely to matter. The language will quite simply have become a normal and enriching part of the rhythm of your life.