How Long to Get to a Conversational Level in a Language?

How Long to Get to a Conversational Level in a Language?

Conversation implies a two-way exchange of language. Therefore, reaching a conversational level  implies quite a high level of comprehension of the language so that we can understand what is being said to us. That means in order to converse properly we need to prepare ourselves.

Here you can read: How long does it take to learn a language


Input is important if you want to get to a conversational level

I believe very much in the importance of input. Most of my language learning has been based on massive amounts of listening and reading, ever since I was a young man.

When I first studied German, Italian and Spanish, I used to study books with word lists. For the last 15 years I’ve been able to take advantage of mp3 players and other technology to study Cantonese, Russian, Korean, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Portuguese as well as other languages. I achieved the ability to converse more quickly, and more enjoyably than before.

I am often asked at what point do I start speaking and when do I consider myself at a conversational level. To some extent you can start at any time. However, the results will vary depending on your degree of preparation.

If you have a limited vocabulary, but you happen to spend two weeks in Mexico, you may be able to say certain things. You may be able to go to a restaurant and between pointing, gesturing and saying things, you’ll be able to order. You may even do better than that. How well you do will depend on your degree of preparation.

Unless you have prepared yourself, with a lot of listening and reading, you may have trouble understanding much of what is said. When you go back home, it may seem that you have lost whatever conversational ability you had. If you had been better prepared you would not only have been able to participate in more meaningful conversations while in the country, but you would probably have been able to retain more after your return home.


Failure and then success

I remember quite a few years ago I spent a few months trying to learn Portuguese using the usual starter books that are sold in bookstores. Then I went to Portugal and found it very difficult to have any meaningful conversations with Portuguese people. I couldn’t follow what the Portuguese were saying. Besides that, they spoke English much better than I spoke Portuguese, so they just switched to English in many cases, or else I just gave up.

Then, a few years later, I put in an additional three months of study of Portuguese, more systematically. I didn’t just read and listen to phrases or study the grammar. I listened daily to interesting content, which I also read. By that time we had better content in our Portuguese library at LingQ, which I devoured. I also found some great Portuguese podcasts that I listened to for hours.

The next time I went to Portugal I could converse, albeit with difficulty, and on quite a wide variety of topics. What was more important, I could understand what people were saying. The people I spoke to continued to speak to me in Portuguese and didn’t automatically switch to English as they had done before. This visit became a milestone in my acquisition of the Portuguese language, which I continue to enjoy, listening, reading and speaking.

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When can we start?

That depends on your situation, opportunity, need and tolerance for uncertainty. A conversation is an opportunity for meaningful input, as you listen to your speaking partner. However, the range of words you will acquire from speaking to someone when your level in the language is low is in turn, quite limited. Your counterpart has to adjust to your level. So even if you have the chance to engage with people in the language at an early stage in the language, I would still recommend staying with a program of deliberate listening and reading. The focus should remain on input.

To speak well, we eventually need to speak a lot. However, how much to speak at what stage of our language learning journey depends on our needs, opportunities and inclination..


How much preparation time?

How much deliberate input learning is required? If I know Spanish and I want to be comfortably conversational in Portuguese and have an hour a day to spend, then I think six months is enough. If I have more than an hour, maybe two or three hours a day, I could reduce that down to two or three months. That is in the case of going from Spanish to Portuguese. Obviously the more similar the new language is to a language you already know, the less time it will take.

For example, it took me years to achieve the same level of comfort in Russian, based on an hour a day of listening and reading. After Russian, Czech took less than a year, and thereafter, Ukrainian and Polish took even less time.


Learn to understand first

Conversation is by definition two-way. It’s not just about you saying something and then being lost when the person replies. Conversation implies a more or less balanced exchange, where the other person doesn’t have to make too many allowances for you, and where you don’t give the impression of not understanding.

The most important goal of language learning, therefore, has to be to understand and let the language come to you. I can stumble and have trouble expressing myself, and not find words. It doesn’t matter. If I can understand what is being said, then my speaking ability will eventually develop.

As to when to take the plunge and start talking, it is really up to you. You can do so at anytime. Your conversational ability will reflect the preparation work you have put it. Regardless of your level, unless you continue to focus your efforts on input, your vocabulary will remain stagnant, and your ability to understand won’t progress. Therefore, even if your goal is just to get to a conversational level, I would keep active in listening and reading. At least that has always been my strategy.


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12 comments on “How Long to Get to a Conversational Level in a Language?

Patrick O'Rourke

I have been studying Portugues for 3 years and been to Brasil 12 times and have a Brasilian girlfriend but i can only say a few phrases and ask for water and a few other things. I cant understand what people are saying. Everyone said “Dont worry, you’ll get it!” but i didn’t. My girlfriend only speaks English with me because i cant understand her if she speaks Portugues. Same with my teachers. Its the most frustrating thing I have had happen to me. People are starting to wonder(including me). Words with 12 meanings, strange sentence structure, gender of everything which isn’t consistent and verbs with 60 different forms make it seem like torture. I cant understand how people can speak and listen and translate and understand and then form replies. I catch the first word or two and then i get lost. We were never taught grammar terms either. On;y noins verbs adjectives and pronouns which makes it difficult when they speak about subjunctive and indicative and the verb “to be” which i had never heard of. I actually score in the top 1% in English tests but this is frustrating. What should i do? Thanks

    Steve Post author

    Forget all the details about subjunctive, indicative or whatever. Concentrate on your comprehension and vocabulary. Get on LingQ. You need to listen a lot to content where you have a chance of understanding, like where you have the text to read. Anyway get on LingQ and start enjoying the language.

      Patrick O'Rourke

      Thanks, I just now saw this. I haven’t heard of that but will try it. All
      If the language sources with audios and videos have been extremely fast and i can’t understand much at all. Movies and videos are the same dominam hoping to find a beginner level source. When I’m in Brasil I can only understand a word or so out of each sentence. 3 frustrating years and 12 trips to Brasil later. Pat


        don’t worry it’s not actually 3 frustrating years if you think about it since from the sounds of it the actual number hours of listening and reading you put into portugese isn’t 3 years. put in your time reading and listening and re-listening and you will seee results.

          Patrick O'Rourke

          It’s been almost 4 years now and 13 trips to Brasil and I still cant converse or understand what people say. It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done. I’m either doing something wrong or I can’t learn another language. When people speak I can’t understand them and when I read I can’t understand what I’m reading yet.

          Name Patrick

          I still can’t understand when I read and listen to spoken Portuguese. i just returned from Brasil for the 14th time and stayed with a Portuguese only family but I couldn’t understand them and had to use a translator the entire time. It’s frustrating. My classes are still in English. I just found out I have diabetes which I am hoping caused the learning problems I am having.

      Patrick O'Rourke

      I’m in Brasil for the 16th time and still can’t converse yet or understand what people say. It’s been almost 5 years now that I’ve been studying Portuguese. I study and practice every day with my Brasilian girlfriend who only speaks Portuguese but I have to translate almost everything into English to understand. It’s like a secret code. My brain must only work in English. I’ll keep trying and hope something magical happens.

Dilshoda Isaeva

In my opinion, your article which is about getting high level in a language is really useful for language learners. While reading the article, I realised that it covers many useful recommendations. Your article is really well-orginised to understand. It is good to name each paragraph of your article properly. This gives readersconvenience andreaders understand about what that paragraph is going to explain. That youcame across and could overcome some difficulties while learning other languages is the most important part of your articleto grab readers’ attantion and motivate them. However the language of your article may be a bit more difficult to understand for elementary learners. Besides, you can place other colorfuland interesting, motivational pictures. I would recommend you to write this kind of useful and motivational articles but in an esier level. Anyway, I highly appriciate your work and wish you good luck in your next articles.


Patrick, I really don’t think you’re taking your Portuguese lessons as seriously as you claim. You probably spend only a few minutes a day learning or you skip several days, I wouldn’t know. I have been listening to French radio 2 hrs daily for about 2 months now and I’ve been actively learning daily by reading and speaking to myself in french since January 2018. I have never been to a French country or even spoken French with anyone ever but when I listen to the radio now, I kind of get the hang of what they’re saying. My listening skills get better by the day and I believe i ‘ll be speaking well enough by the end of the year. There’s no special language learning gene. If you want it badly, you will get it. Don’t give up on learning, and put in the hours everyday and I promise you, you will see a change.

    Name *Patrick

    In addition to the classes, apps, audios, videos and movies I speak with a Brasilian friend 1-3 hours a day but still have to use a translator because I can’t converse yet. It’s frustrating. I just spent a month with this friend in Bradil but couldn’t understand her which because it kept me from conversing. I talk with people that have studied Portugues for 1 month that are conversing and I still can’t after 4 years and 4 months and 14 visits to Brasil. I can’t order food yet because I can’t understand the waiters. I’m not going to quit. Duolingo said I was 54% fluent which was interesting. Thanks

    Patrick O'Rourke

    I’m still studying Portuguese every day and practicing every day with my girlfriend who lives in Brasil and only speaks Portuguese but I still can’t understand what she says except for an occasional word. I’m in Brasil for the 16th time and have studied for 4 years, 11 months and 5 days now. I found that when I haven’t slept that I can understand a lot more of what I hear and the words that I know that are ready to be used are more plentiful. My girlfriend and her daughter notice it too. But when I sleep the magical ability disappears. But that shows me that it’s possible. There must be something blocking my ability. I’ll keep studying and practicing. Patrick

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