How Long Should it Take to Learn a Language?

How Long Should it Take to Learn a Language?

Language is overwhelmingly dependent on three factors: the attitude of the learner, the time the learner spends with the language, and the learner’s attentiveness to the language.


So given that this is the case, 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?

It is not easy to answer this question since there are so many factors that can influence the amount of time required to learn a language. These can include the methods used, but also the attitude of the learner as explained above. In other words, does the learner like the language, feel confident that he or she can learn it, believe in the method being used etc.? 


One organization with lots of learners has made an estimate of the time required to learn different languages.


How Long to Learn a Language According to the FSI

The FSI, 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.


The FSI 5 levels of proficiency 

Elementary proficiency

The person is able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements. I have to admit that I have never found this minimum level really works that well beyond saying hello and asking for the bathroom.


Limited working proficiency

The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements. This is a limited ability to converse and really only a step towards real fluency.


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. This is the first level that is useful in real situations. This probably corresponds to B2 on the European Framework of Reference. This is what I always aim for.


Full professional proficiency

The person uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs. This is nice if you can achieve it but takes a long time.


Native or bilingual proficiency

The person has speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker. This is rare.


On this scale, I would call limited working proficiency 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.


Most of us don’t have 10 hours a day to spend, so it will take longer. Furthermore, if we don’t have 10 hours a day, we are better to focus on activities that we like doing and that are easy to organize, like listening and reading, using a system like LingQ, for example. But let’s look at what a 10 hour day of language study might look like.


If you were to study a language 10 hours a day…

Is 10 hours a day reasonable to learn a language? It could be. In order not to burn out, it is important to vary the activities.


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 to an online tutor 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.

So if you don’t have that much time, I would encourage you to focus on input-based learning, with a lot of listening during dead time, time when you are doing other tasks, washing the dishes, driving your car, walking, working out etc..


This first stage is important in order to get a grasp of some basic vocabulary and a sense of how the language works. It also gives us the confidence that we can move on to fluency. During this first stage we are curious about the language and willing to listen to the same content over and over. 


Repetitive listening is an excellent way to get used to a new language. Whatever content you listen to, and I recommend point of view stories like the Mini Stories at LingQ, make sure you also have access to the transcripts so that you can learn the vocabulary.


To go from level 2 to level 4, or full professional fluency would take quite a bit longer, perhaps twice as long for easier languages and four times as long for the more difficult languages.


Learning Languages on LingQ to Achieve Fluency Faster

Immersing yourself in a new language doesn’t require you to travel abroad or sign up for an expensive language program. You can find lots of material to listen to and read at home. However, it can be a time-consuming to find interesting content. You will also benefit from an efficient way of looking up new words and phrases and keeping track of them. 


That’s why there’s LingQ, a language app that helps you discover and learn from content you love. You can start with the repetitive Mini Stories and other beginner content and then move on to things of interest to you.


You can import videos, podcasts, and much more and turn them into interactive lessons. Keep all your favorite content stored in one place, easily look up new words, save vocabulary, and review.


LingQ is available for desktop as well as Android and iOS. Create an account today and gain access to thousands of hours of audio and transcripts.




Want free access to my FREE 10 Secrets to Language Learning Success email course? Sign up here! This could be day one on your journey to fluency in a new language. 

44 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.


    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.


    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


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.

    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!

English lessons online 

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!

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 *Patrick O’Rourke

    I have been studying Portugues for 4 years, two months and 1 day and been to Brasil 13 times and have been excited to finally learn a second language. I even have a Brasilian girlfriend but she has to order my food for me at restaurants because I still can’t understand spoken Portugues and very little written. It’s like I’m deciphering a secret code and I have to translate everything. My classes have all been in English because I can’t understand enough Portugues. It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done. My girlfriend only speaks English with me because I can’t understand her which doesn’t help. I have been studying 1-3 hours per day and I speak and write with a Brasilian every day but I can’t feel any improvement. I can only say very basic things like “Hello, good bye, please, thank you, good morning, how is it going? and things like this. I have always been able to learn things very quickly. Any ideas?

    Name * Paul Schreiber

    Excellent comment all around, Rob. Ain’t nuthin’ easy ’bout learnin’ a foreign language, but there can be some great strides made with patience and good ole’ sticktuitiveness, as you have found out. Your “unscientific” comment about the 480 hours and asking where the bus is was really funny.

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.

    Name *stuart

    I agree. It seems hard to learn a new language when 99% of the times you’re around people, or talking to people, you hear nothing but English. In addition to basically everything you see, other than things like books for language learning, is in English as well.

Name *Laura

I think it also depends on HOW you learn the language. I had 2 years of French in junior high and 4 years in high school. This was back in the 1970s, when languages were taught mostly by textbook with verb conjugation drills. I always received great grades and thought I knew French well until I went on vacation with native speakers and couldn’t understand anything they said! Forty years later I can read or hear some French phrases and automatically know what they mean, but I can’t really speak more than the basics. Things have really changed! Language learning seems to be more natural now. I just hope the new methods are effective. Are there any studies to show the effectivess of different language programs?

Name *Eve

I am 36yrs old the first 12 years of my life I learnt and picked up basics in German, Spanish, French and Greek , I wasn`t much of a class person glowing up I left school at the age of 16, when`t to a college that took me for granted I was bullied in school, I have always liked learning languages and cultures and how they worked but no now had faith in me except my mum, so I gave it up, now I am 36 years old and wish to be fluent in all these languages above or 50 languages or more and enjoy them, how can I do that in my lifetime, pay attention to my life needs my needs, and speak all these languages with sos languages, and eko languages on YouTube that has basically ever language under the sun, and lasts for 8 hours or less, how is it possible?

Name *

So about how long would it take me (I’m almost 14) to become fluent in Chinese, Japanese and Korean? I already know a bit of each, but not much, and the summer holidays are coming up, so I have a lot of time up my sleeve. How many hours a day would you recommend?

Name *Sam

To be truly fluent you will be learning for the rest of your life. Learning a language is a never ending process. I think it takes at least 5 dedicated years to become decent and 10 years to become really good, nevertheless you will still hear references, words, slang etc that you won’t understsnd being that you did not grow up speaking the language of being exposed to cultural references.

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