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.

 

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21 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.

    Bob

    well if you move to a country that only speaks that language, 10 hours a day being exposed to the language inst that hard to believe

    yankel

    Totally unreasonable. Also it’s mentally quite exhausting learning languages, I’ve been using pimsleur and it’s supposed to be 30 minutes a day, which will take me an hour since I pause to try to recall before hearing the answer, and it’s quite a lot of work to focus for that amount of time. We’re not machines

    Also like you were getting at, this isn’t a marathon, it should be a nice enjoyable process of learning a language, where things start to just click nicely with time, we’re not machines. And eventually you’ll just be learning the language in smaller incremental steps where you don’t even realize it, like overtime you hear someone speak or read a street sign.

    chris

    My University class is 4hrs/day, w/ 2-4 hrs homework per night.. throw in a couple movies, listening exercises, and the fact that my Chinese friends barely speak English – go out to lunch or dinner with them and that’s easily 10 hours

RonaldD

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.

hoseyn

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.

Melissa

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.

Roberto Bracamonte

I think cognitive abilities are very important. A person with an excellent memory will learn vocabulary much faster. The older you get, the harder it is to learn new words due to memory problems (senior moments). I am 50 yo and it problably takes me 5 times longer to learn a new word compared to my daughter who is 8 year-old. Someone with pre-dementia or early dementia will certainly have difficulties even with the space repetition technique. If you have an average memory it should be as described above. If you have an excellent memory, then you can cut the time by half. I think motivation is the number one requirement, this can make even bad memory learn a new language provided of sufficient space repetition which works on an individual level.

Rob Peters

I’ve only tried to learn one second language, Spanish. I have put thousands of hours into it, listening to tapes, stays of up to three months in language schools in Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Plus for the past ten years I read for pleasure only in Spanish, e.g. the entire Harry Potter series, every book written by the prolific detective story writer John D. McDonald. I’ve read approximately 5-10 books per month in Spanish for ten years. Yet after all this I can’t say I’m truly fluent. Unlike most American students of Spanish I can usually get the subjunctive right, although I’m still never sure when in the past with the adverb phrase “despues de que” I need subjunctive, when the indicative, and when I can get my choice. The bottom line is that becoming truly fluent, i.e. like an educated native speaker is almost impossible. I read an interesting study that concluded that most people, even after years living in a Spanish-speaking country, are stuck somewhere between levels 2 and 3 on the Foreign Service Institute scale. People at this level can have conversations on most topics, but they are mutilating the language with a plethora of grammatical mistakes, strange sentence structures, and unusual word choices. Think of the gadzillions of nuances in English that most immigrants never pick up. E.g. “Gotcha!” can mean that you caught someone doing something they shouldn’t, but it can also mean “I understand you.” Partly people get stuck because of what’s called fossilization, which is when a person get “fossilized” on a particular error, e.g. misusing a verb tense, and never improves, despite living in country in a sea of native speakers. To correct fossilized errors is extremely difficult and takes focused training. Use a sports metaphor, like a quarterback who keeps leaving the pocket too soon. The only fix is if the coach drills and drills and drills him. The other reason people don’t advance is simple mathematics. There isn’t enough time. Estimates are that a reasonably educated native speaker of English has a vocabulary of 20,000 to 40,000 words, and I’ve seen higher estimates. So how long would it take you to match a native speaker’s 20,000 words if you could learn a word in 5 minutes and remember it perfectly forever? 1,666 hours, or 208 eight-hour days. Whew! And of course no one can memorize words that fast and hold on to them. Even if you memorize the simple “flash card” meanings, some words will have dozens of meanings depending on context and “helping” words. Think about “gotcha.” The bottom line is that you’re unlikely to ever achieve true fluency. My own unscientific impression is that the 480 hours to reach “basic fluency” is about what you need to ask where the bus is and then not understand the answer! Think about it. If you can recognize and grammatically understand 500 words, and 2,000 words are commonly used in everyday speech, you’re only going to understand 1/4 of what you hear, probably not enough to understand. It’s been my experience that, even though I have a large vocabulary after so much reading, that missing only one or two words in a sentence is enough to get me completely lost. “It sounded to me like Juan said his sister threw a baboon off the patio, but that doesn’t make sense.” My advice is to have realistic expectations. If your goal is to communicate basic needs while traveling, that should be doable with a few hundred hours of study and quick access to an internet dictionary on your phone. But if you want to be mistaken for an educated native, that’s a lifetime slog. Think about it, how long does it take for an English speaker to become a college-educated speaker in his/her own language?

Name *Gytis

@Rob, well said and I agree with most points however if one can read a “Harry Potter” book like yourself in a foreign language without a need for a dictionary you are FLUENT then.
In my case due to work I decided to rekindle my interest in German (which would be my 4th language). I’ve been studying German on and off for many years (did 4 years of HS), one semester of college, and then did not touch the language for over 20 years (forgot around 95% of what I learned) and last year did a couple month A1 class on top of self-study and even after all this time I am just at A2 level and know only enough to get by in order to do daily tasks or have child-like conversations. Reading and writing is fine but understanding native speakers on the street when they do not use the most common expressions or for example nouns/verbs for specific actions is a major challenge.

I myself still marvel at people, especially kids who become fluent in just 6 months but as for myself I feel like unless I am in an immersed environment (living in the country) learning the language at full fluency is nearly impossible.

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