How Long Should it Take to Learn a Language?

how long does it take to learn a language?

How Long Should it Take to Learn a Language?

Language learning depends mostly on three factors: the attitude of the learner, the time available, and the learner’s attentiveness to the language. If we assume a positive attitude and reasonable and growing attentiveness to the language on the part of the learner, how much time should it take to learn a language?

FSI, the US Foreign Service Institute, divides languages into groups of difficulty for speakers of English:

  • Group 1: French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili
  • Group 2: Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu
  • Group 3: Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Lao, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese
  • Group 4: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

FSI has 5 levels of proficiency:

  1. Elementary proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
  2. Limited working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
  3. Minimum professional proficiency. The person can speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.
  4. Full professional proficiency. The person uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.
  5. Native or bilingual proficiency. The person has speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.

On this scale, I would call 2 above basic conversational fluency.

FSI research indicates that it takes 480 hours to reach basic fluency in group 1 languages, and 720 hours for group 2-4 languages.

If we are able to put in 10 hours a day to learn a language, then basic fluency in the easy languages should take 48 days, and for difficult languages 72 days. Accounting for days off, this equates to two months or three months time. If you only put in five hours a day, it will take twice as long.

how long does it take to learn a language?
Is ten hours a day reasonable to learn a language? It could be. Here is a sample day.

8-12: Alternate listening, reading and vocabulary review using LingQ, Anki or some other system.

12-2: Rest, exercise, lunch, while listening to the language.

2-3: Grammar review

3-4: Write

4-5: Talk via skype or with locals if in the country

5-7: Rest

7-10: Relaxation in the language, movies, songs, or going out with friends in the language. depending on availability.

To some extent the language needs time to gestate and often things we study today do not click in for months. On the other hand, intensity has its own benefits. I have no doubt that someone following this intense program, or something similar, would achieve basic conversational fluency in two months for easy languages, and three months for difficult languages.

To go from level 2 to level 4, or full professional fluency would take quite a bit longer, perhaps twice as long.


Want to learn language from content you love?

You may also like

13 comments on “How Long Should it Take to Learn a Language?

Jack O'Trades

Wow that made me lol – thank you 🙂

Seriously, 10 hours a day? Back to back? For 72 days? You’ll either be fluent or suicidal. I’m on a much slower pace – for me it’s important to find enjoyment in it to reach a point where I look forward to plowing thru those verb conjugations again. Can’t do it on willpower, shame or guilt.

Wow, 10 hours a day. Good for you! Just imagine if you could do 20 hours a day – that’s only 10 short hours more per day. You’d be “done” in just a few weeks.


My level of English used to be quite bad but last year I passed the CPE in English test successfully. So it can be done!
Now the bad news: it will take a lot of work to get there. I am not in favor of a very intensive method. I don’t have the time for that. I took evening language lessons for 5 years: one lesson of 3 hours per week plus two hours of self-study. I live in Brussels, a large city, so I am lucky to be able to go to a very good language schools that prepared me for the Certificate of Proficiency in English.
But that was only the last year. The previous years, I moved up one level every year: A2, B1, B2, C1 and finally C2. It is an ongoing effort, and you open up for the language when you are not studying it, with movies, English books, holidays, talking to international friends, etc. It all helps and it is what a foreign language is all about: using it as a means of communication.


what’s the basic fluency and how do i notice that i’ve achieved to that level?
this article is clearly
thanks steve…:))
you’re the best

    Steve Post author

    When you understand most of what people are saying, and can say mostly what you want to say, although you make mistakes and have an accent, that is basic fluency, in other words fluency. Cheers.

Name *Antonina Pondo

This is a fascinating article and really makes one stop and consider all the variables present when learning a foreign language, let alone the time it takes to reach the different levels described! Would you mind sharing the research sources from FSI you mentioned in the article? I would love to better understand!

Hi there,
Nice post but I think it depends on the person catch power that how many days or months he/she need to learn the language so we can’t decide the time duration for learning the language. we can just assume that a person can learn from 4 to 6 months.


Does this schedule apply for a woman who has young kids still at home? I’m trying to learn Tagalog. I put in about 4-5 hours a day, 5 days a week, and that is feeling like a major stretch!! I’m in the “frustrated because I’m not making better progress” category!

    Steve Post author

    Be happy at what you have achieved. Read whatever you listen to, if possible, it is easier to acquire words, and improve comprehension that way. Once you understand it will be easier to speak.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.