By Jonty Yamisha
You’ve chosen a language to learn and assessed whether your current life demands will support your goal. You’ve made room in your schedule, but you’re probably wondering how long your language learning project will require. Understand that learning a language is never finished. Still, it makes sense to ask how but long will this initial push toward fluency take?
The answer is: it depends.
In my case, I have variable abilities in German, Arabic, French, Circassian, Russian, and Turkish. In each case, the initial push was very different because my goals, expectations, and ability to invest time varied for each one. Additionally, a few of these languages are very closely related, so some just took more effort than others. To give you a better understanding of how long it takes to learn a new language, I’ll get provide an overview below.
The biggest determinants in learning a new language are your goals, expectations, and motivation. Some language learners are satisfied with learning the basics of a foreign language. This is common among world travelers who foresee a need to ask directions, understand a menu, or offer friendly greetings to people they meet in a foreign country.
Other learners may be interested in a bit more mastery in order to conduct basic business transactions or have simple conversations with speakers of another language. A third group is driven toward fluency. They desire the ability to have meaningful conversations on a variety of topics, read more complex text, and understand most of the spoken language they hear.
These divergent goals obviously require significantly different time commitments, and a language learner must have a reasonable sense of these differences. Understanding the levels of commitment necessary for various levels of mastery can assist you in matching your goals to your expectations, and that goes a long way toward enjoying the learning process and avoiding frustration.
Motivation plays an important role in determining how long it takes a person to learn a new language. Decades ago, psychologists identified two basic types of motivation. Intrinsic motivation stems from the enjoyment or personal satisfaction a person derives from engaging in a behavior. Extrinsic motivation, as the name suggests, is a drive that comes from outside. Money and the approval of others are both good examples of extrinsic motivators.
Linguists use similar concepts to describe the motivation specific to learning a language. Integrative motivation is a drive to connect with the culture and people of a region by learning their language. It can also be more specific, such as learning a language to improve communication in cross-cultural relationships, or show respect for the language and culture of a family member who doesn’t speak English.
Instrumental motivation is commonly described as a drive to learn a language for reasons other than the language itself. Learners who undertake foreign language study primarily for school credit or as a supplement to their business qualifications are instrumentally motivated.
Studies show strong correlations between integrative motivation and high levels of language proficiency. Learners motivated by the integrative approach pick up pronunciation and accent more effectively, and this is thought to be due to greater empathy toward native speakers of a language.
Integrative motivation doesn’t necessarily decrease the time necessary to learn the basics of a foreign language, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that strong interest in a language and culture might facilitate the journey toward true fluency.
Another important factor in determining the time it will take you to learn a foreign language is your desired level of fluency. Like most things, language fluency exists on a continuum, which can make it difficult for a new learner to understand how long it might take to learn a language.
There are many so-called language experts who claim to have a system in place that guarantees language fluency in just a few months. However, their definition of fluency is far different from what a native speaker of that particular language would judge as fluent.
In most cases, the fluency that the language experts claim to impart is a set of basic expressions that use simple grammar and are helpful for those individuals who are about to travel to a foreign country. Such ‘tourist’ content helps these individuals get around and fulfill basic social functions, like hailing a taxi, but don’t define them as fluent.
Fortunately, there are organizations that study language learning and have broken the concept of fluency into distinct categories. These categories help you use your desired level of proficiency as a basis for estimating your time commitment. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) offers numbered rating scales to categorize levels of proficiency for new language learners.
Levels one and five are easy to understand and apply to any language student’s long-term learning plan. But the others relate more specifically to the professional world, and may not work for everyone. Overall, the FSI ratings may be of more utility for a person planning a career in international relations or business.
For people who are not interested in conducting business, another commonly used list of categories is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
CEFR uses six categories divided by a level designation, a descriptive name, a typical vocabulary for each category, and a brief summary of the ability of a speaker at each level. Level designations are simple alphanumeric names: A1 and A2 describe Beginner and Elementary, respectively; B1 and B2 are Intermediate and Upper, and C1 and C2 are Advanced and Mastery. While the level designations are named simply for convenience, they do provide a commonly understood shorthand language learning language learners.
Speakers generally can:
Use and understand basic phrases when speaking slowly.
Understand simple expressions and express immediate needs.
Understand common issues and improvise discussion.
Understand complex topics; engage in spontaneous speech.
Express ideas fluently and spontaneously without strain.
Comprehend virtually everything read or heard.
These categories are obviously imperfect. For example, we might have a hard time finding a meaningful difference between “engaging in spontaneous speech” and “expressing ideas spontaneously and without strain.” But they do offer some idea of the differences in levels of mastery for an aspiring language learner, and quantifying the levels with an expected vocabulary is quite helpful.
One criticism of the CEFR fluency categories is that some languages are more difficult for non-speakers to learn. Because of this, vocabulary is not always an accurate measure of fluency. It follows, then, that some aspects of languages will take a learner far longer to completely grasp than others. Mandarin, for example, uses variations in tone to make a single word mean vastly different things, so learning Mandarin pronunciation will take much longer.
In addition to categories for describing language competency, the FSI has also created a system that places languages into five categories ranked by difficulty. The specific purpose of these categories is to aid in estimating how long it will take a native English speaker to learn a particular language. A language’s difficulty is defined by how similarity it is to English, with consideration given to both linguistics and culture.
Category I languages, which the FSI describes as closely related to English, include Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish. If the FSI designations are accurate, these languages would require the least amount of time to learn. For a person interested in learning a foreign language reasonably well for instrumental purposes, like course credit, one of these languages might be a good choice.
Category II is described as similar to English, and this category only includes German. Category III, described as languages with differences from English. And Category IV are languages with significant differences, include long lists of languages from Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Southern Asia, and Africa.
The most difficult languages, in Category V, are Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean. According to FSI estimates, these five languages can take as much as four times longer to learn than those in Category I.
Along with your goals and motivation, your language learning method also impacts how long it will take for you to get comfortable with your new language.
As our understanding of human learning has evolved, our teaching practices and opportunities for self-directed learning have changed dramatically. Older Americans who took foreign language classes in high school often find that the methods they learned back then are simply not effective for achieving even a modest level of proficiency in a reasonable amount of time. Utilizing outdated approaches to language learning, especially outside a classroom, usually ends in frustration and failure.
Modern approaches to language learning, both in and out of the classroom, emphasize the idea of immersion in a language to provide context to raw information. While we often hear criticisms of rote learning, some degree of repetition is necessary to add to your vocabulary and understanding of language. There are two modern approaches that have been shown to be very efficient in terms of learning time.
Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) allow you to use something akin to rote learning in a more efficient (and often more fun) way. A simple example of SRS is the use of flashcards. It would be a huge waste of time to compile a list of hundreds of vocabulary words on cards and review the entire list each day. A better approach is to eliminate words from the stack as you learn them. They can be interspersed with new words at a later time, further reinforcing the memory of the word. This is essentially how SRS works.
Many language learning software packages use the concept of SRS in a more sophisticated way. Modern language learning apps, for example, use repetition along with context to increase the speed of learning. As new vocabulary words are introduced, they are repeated within different sentences. Previously learned words are also repeated in new lessons, and the net result is a combination of repetition and meaning that is highly effective for reducing the amount of study time necessary and creating solid, well-connected stores of information in the brain.
An important aspect of utilizing any SRS approach is that best results come from daily study. However, because software packages so often employ approaches that combine repetition and meaning, the amount of study time required each day can be significantly reduced without adding to the total time required for eventual fluency. The basic idea here is that quality of time spent is much more valuable than quantity.
Another highly effective way to learn a foreign language in less time is total immersion. Go to a country where that language is spoken and try to use only that language. This approach will usually require some base knowledge of the language, but the degree to which language skills can improve in a short time is astounding. As little as two or three weeks can be enough time for you to improve from knowing some words and phrases to actually using them in simple conversations.
By now, it should be clear that there is no single estimate of the time it takes to learn a foreign language that applies to everyone. Different people have different goals and motivations, and the approach they take to learning a language may not be the most efficient one. Compounding this problem is the fact that some languages are much harder to learn than others.
For the aspiring language learner interested in a very general idea of how long various levels of fluency might take, there are some decent resources. Let’s look at four time-estimating resources.
Paul Pimsleur was an applied linguist who developed the Pimsleur language learning system, and his name is widely known in both academic and popular culture. By his estimates, a person who is willing to skip any efforts to speak or write a language can learn to read material related to their line of work in 100 to 150 hours. A person who desires what Pimsleur called “balanced competence” could acquire “reasonable mastery” by studying six hours per week for two years.
“Educated mastery,” by which Pimsleur meant the ability to understand most people, read nearly anything without the assistance of a dictionary, and write with some semblance of style, would require at least a year and a half. However, at least a year of that time would be spent in total immersion, living in a country where the language is spoken almost exclusively.
Pimsleur’s estimates may seem daunting, but it’s worth noting that he died in 1976. Language learning systems have come a long way since then, so it would be reasonable to assume that his estimates are somewhat high for the modern language learner.
The FSI provides estimates for the amount of time it takes to reach their classifications using FSI learning. The FSI’s estimates are for the average number of hours for a native English speaker to achieve “Professional Working Proficiency” in a given language.
The assumption is that the native English speaker has no background in any language other than English. Accordingly, the FSI organizes its estimates based on how difficult a given language is for a native English speaker.
The FSI’s difficulty classifications fall into four categories. Here’s a summary of the FSI’s time estimates to reach “Professional Working Proficiency.”
Like the Pimsleur estimates, the FSI estimates come with caveats. The most glaring of these is the method by which FSI courses are conducted. FSI students are taught in classrooms with textbooks, and immersion in a community of native speakers is not part of the curriculum. Additionally, the courses are conducted six hours per day, five days per week.
People’s attention span is limited, and while limits vary among individuals, very few people can effectively engage in learning a single topic for six hours a day. It is very likely that many of the training hours were wasted due to inattention or burnout. For my own part, I think it’s possible to achieve a very strong level of fluency in far less time, so long as the language learner is using the materials and methods right for them.
One final caveat when it comes to the FSI is that it’s not entirely clear what “Professional Working Proficiency” is. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, the FSI has never publicly defined what this means. Secondly, even if they did, this definition would vary dramatically based on what one’s profession is; a diplomat will require very different vocabulary and grammatical skills than a poet or a chemical engineer.
For my own part, based on personal experience and common sense, I’d interpret “Professional Working Proficiency” as somewhere between a B2 or C1 on the CEFR scale. Of course, that opens an interesting question: does the CEFR estimate the number of hours necessary to reach some level of language mastery? As it turns out, they do.
The British Council is an international organization devoted to cultural and educational opportunities. They offer time estimates for reaching CEFR levels with their learning programs.
Once again, some caveats are in order. Because CEFR is based in Europe, their time estimates assume European language learners. It is important to keep in mind that the typical European is exposed to many more languages on a daily basis than the typical American. A Dutch-speaking Belgian, for example, would likely achieve fluency in French very quickly because 40 percent of Belgians speak French as their first language.
On a related note, the CEFR estimates don’t take into account how easy or difficult a given language is for a European language learner. Common sense would dictate that Spanish is a lot easier for a native Portuguese speaker to learn than Arabic or Chinese.
All that said, with a huge grain of salt, I think it’s fair to assume that it could take somewhere between 500 – 1,000 hours for a language learner to feel very comfortable with most languages. When I say, “feel very comfortable,” I mean that you’d feel comfortable speaking with native speakers, understanding their speech at their normal speed, be able to speak freely and fluidly without consciously translating words in your mind, and read and write the language without too much difficulty.
To be clear, you absolutely would not be able to use the language as freely as a native speaker. But accent aside, you might be mistaken as a fluent speaker. So long as you stayed within a narrow band of topics… This has been my own experience speaking several of the languages I know. It also seems to be the case with my wife, for whom English is her fourth or fifth language.
Many factors dictate how long it takes to achieve mastery in a foreign language. Many of them, like innate ability, have not been mentioned here. However, some general information and a bit of self-understanding make it entirely possible for you to reasonably estimate how much time is necessary to achieve your desired level of fluency in a new language.
True language fluency requires consistent effort and time, and while 500 – 1,000 hours may seem like a lot, a typical person could probably invest that level of time over 12 – 18 months, with the right study schedule. And if that still seems a bit overwhelming, bear in mind that this is what it might take to achieve a certain level of fluency. You may be perfectly happy just getting by with the bare basics, and that takes far less time. I cover this more in-depth in the following section.
As we’ve discovered, there is no simple answer to the question of how long it takes to learn a new language. There are far too many variables, including how fluency is defined, which language is being learned, how much exposure the language learner previously had to other languages, whether immersion is part of the process, and other factors. But the information I’ve provided should give you a good grip on approximately how long it will take you to reach your language learning goals.
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