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How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?

How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?
on December 29, 2016

Time is an important way to measure different aspects of our life. Because it is so integral in many areas of our lives, it is easy to start to use time as a way to define success.

When it comes to learning a language, the amount of time it takes is irrelevant.

There are simply too many factors for a definitive amount of time to be set to learn a language.

If you attempted to learn a language back in high school and found that you knew very little after two years, that does not mean anything. There were many reasons why you probably came away with little knowledge from the experience, such as you were only doing it because you had to and you learned just enough not to fail the class.

The Desire for a Grading System

It is easy to define almost everything you learn. Subjects like math, science, and music all have their own methods and systems of defining what you know. Languages are much less clear cut because (unlike nearly every other school class you only know how familiar you are with a language when you are placed in a situation when you can’t use English. Much of your success is going to depend on having the necessary vocabulary and conjugations for the situation. And none of what you learn may apply in the situations where you want to use the language, like video games and talking about sports.

This makes it difficult to establish a system for knowing when you have adequately learned a language.

Organizations like the Foreign Service Institute have worked to determine roughly how long it will take to learn a language based on certain criteria. If you take a highly intense Spanish course, you should be fluent to their specifications in about six months. Using the same course and standards, it will be about two years before you are on the same level when speaking Korean.

Still, these declarations are arbitrary and really do not fit into the time schedule people have for learning a language.

It is better to decide how long it will take you specifically to learn a language based on the following four tips.

Determine What You Mean by Learn

There are many different degrees of learning nearly everything, but language, in particular, makes it difficult to know when you are done learning if you don’t know the level of competency you want to reach in the language. Simply saying that you want to be fluent isn’t going to help either. Fluent means different things to different people, usually based on the country where a person lives. For example, Europeans have a much more rigid definition of what it means to be fluent than Americans.

Decide what level of familiarity of the language you want.

There are several tools you can use to help you define your desired level, such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. They provide frameworks for language proficiency so you can determine how knowledgeable you want to be in your target language.

The level that you aspire to reach should include all four of the most important communication methods: speaking, reading, writing, and listening.

It is also important to use your personal goals to define your level of knowledge If you want to be able to pick up a book and read in the target language, define the kinds of books you want to be able to read. Also think about hobbies and other elements that you want included in what you learn.

Factor in the Time You Are Willing (and Able) to Put toward the Effort

While it would be fantastic to go to another country or to dedicate several hours a day to language learning, these are not practical for most people. Know how much time you will be dedicating to learning on a daily basis (and it does need to be daily). Sometimes it will be little things like listening to a podcast in your target language or playing a game on one of your breaks.

If you can put more time to it, obviously you are going to reduce the amount of time it takes to reach your defined level of learning. Keep in mind that you can dedicate idle time to watching something in the target language as well. You will need to do much more than that (particularly when you use subtitles), but working the language into your normal life will help you learn a little faster.

Keep in mind that dedicating more time to your studies will speed up your learning, but it isn’t going to happen in a week’s time. It is still going to take months, if not years, for you to start to feel comfortable reading and listening to the language, and probably longer than that until you will speak easily.

Research the Relationship between English and Your Target Language

The reason why it takes a quarter of the time for an English speaker to learn Spanish compared to learning Korean is that Spanish is much more closely related. Language families play a huge role in how quickly you are likely to learn a language

The languages that are going to take the longest for an English speaker to learn are of the Asian and Middle Eastern languages. They are going to take you much longer to learn than if you learn German. English and German are very closely related, with many of the same grammatical structures (and similar vocabulary). You are more likely to reach a comfort level much faster with German than any other language.

The Romance languages are similar enough that you should be able to learn one of them faster than most of the other languages (but not as quickly as German).

Even if you have already learned another language that is no guide for how long it will take to learn a language that is completely unrelated to your native tongue.

Make sure you are realistic about the time you give yourself based on how similar the language is to English or any other language you have learned.

Be Prepared for It to Take a While and Keep It Fun

One of the greatest determiners in how long a person takes to learn a language (and whether they will succeed) is how enthusiastic that person is about learning the language. If you are only doing it as a requirement for school, it is probably going to take you a lot longer than someone who is learning a language for fun or with a purpose in mind.

You have to expect that it is going to take you longer because odds are good that things are going to happen that will interfere with your learning. You can only plan for so much. However, if you keep your enthusiasm, these setbacks will not be detrimental.

The fact that it took you longer than you expected can also be used to your advantage. For example, use it to seek out other people who know the language. Work your hobbies around your learning. Keep it fun, and you will keep learning, even long after you reach your goals.

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