how long does it take to learn a language

How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language? The Full Answer

You’re ready to embark on your very own language learning adventure.

But how far will your path go before you reach your journey’s end?

In this guide, we’ll take a detailed look at the different factors that can affect how long it’ll take to learn your target language.

Contents

What Skill Level Are You Aiming For?

From the start, it’s critical to get an idea of your destination. Just how much of your target language do you want to master?

The higher the skill level you’re aiming for, the more time you’ll have to commit. But we can break this down even further, with the help of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

The CEFR is a scale that’s widely used to calculate and categorize the proficiency levels of a foreign language. It uses six levels ascending from most basic to most advanced: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2.

Beginner level

CEFR scale estimate: A1-A2

Appropriate for: very basic conversations, “survival” vocabulary, traveler essentials

Time estimate: A few months

If you’re the type who just wants to know the bare necessities of your target language, then you’re striving for the beginner level.

The beginner level may contain the “easiest” parts of the language, but it can come with its own challenges. This is especially the case when the language is very different from your native one. It may take some time to get used to all the new words, sounds and rules.

That said, with the right amount of dedication and effort, you can usually expect to reach beginner level fluency within a handful of months.

Intermediate level

CEFR scale estimate: B1-B2

Appropriate for: simple typical conversations with native speakers, job that requires some language skill

Time estimate: Several months to a year or more

The intermediate level is the steady middle-ground that can get you quite far in everyday life. It’s the skill level to be if you want to start having simple interactions with real native speakers, which is a great goal to reach!

When you start creeping into B2 territory (high intermediate), then you may be able to put your skills to business use for very basic tasks.

Most learners can reach the intermediate level of B1 within a series of months, though it can also take a year or more when you want to bump up into the B2 level.

Advanced level

CEFR scale estimate: C1-C2

Appropriate for: interacting confidently with native speakers, understanding native-level and sophisticated content, professional and business interactions

Time estimate: Several years

The holy grail for many a language learner, the advanced level is when you’re really comfortable using your target language for both basic and complicated matters. It’s the grounds for true fluency that positions you quite close to the podium of native speakers.

Reaching this point will, of course, take the longest time out of any of the levels. With rigorous study, you can hope your studies will take several years.

What Language Are You Learning?

Certain languages may be “easier” to pick up, which can mean faster progress. Others may be much more difficult and require more study time.

Romance languages

Includes: Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian

The elegant Romance languages are well-loved and widely-spoken around the world, making them appealing choices for learners seeking to pick up a useful second language.

Romance languages also tend to be relatively easy for English speakers to learn. The usage of the Latin alphabet and reasonably predictable grammar patterns can make the language features more palatable.

The biggest learning pitfalls tend to relate to proper pronunciation and verb conjugation. These topics can be difficult for beginner learners to grasp and for more advanced learners to master.

French in particular is known for tricky pronunciation, whereas a language like Spanish follows more consistent pronunciation rules. And the many verb tenses in Romance languages can create a steep learning curve for English speakers (we only need to know a few), especially as you move into the intermediate levels.

Time estimate by CEFR scale:

  • Beginner (A1-A2): 70-200+ hours
  • Intermediate (B1-B2): 300-600+ hours
  • Advanced (C1-C2): 700-1000+ hours

Germanic languages

Includes: German, Dutch, Swedish, English

This is the language subfamily that English falls into. So naturally, it won’t have too many conflicts with its lingual kin. These languages can be useful for travel, business and for appreciating pop culture exports like classic Swedish films and German metal music.

English speakers learning a Germanic language will happily notice some familiar vocabulary, pronunciation rules and even basic grammar structures. All of these and more can make these languages cozy “second language” choices.

The biggest conflicts with Germanic languages can arise from some complex grammatical aspects that can be tough to master. For example, German’s cases and gendered articles are a common sore spot for English speakers to grasp.

Time estimate by CEFR scale:

  • Beginner (A1-A2): 80-250+ hours
  • Intermediate (B1-B2): 350-650+ hours
  • Advanced (C1-C2): 800-1100+ hours

East Asian languages

Includes: Chinese, Japanese, Korean

Around the world, the alluring East Asian languages are rising in popularity. A big reason may be their relevance in pop culture, but these languages are also widely spoken and can be especially critical for global business entrepreneurs to know.

Anyone who pursues these tongues are definitely worthy of some credit, because East Asian languages are notorious for being difficult. They demand learners familiarize with entirely new vocabulary, unique writing systems and unfamiliar phonetic rules.

Many struggle with East Asian language pronunciation, grammar rules and reading and writing fluency. However, the challenges you face will depend a lot on which language you learn.

For example, English speakers often find Chinese grammar to be much easier to grasp than the much more complicated Japanese grammar rules. But Chinese poses a unique challenge as a tonal language, while Japanese and Korean learners don’t need to worry about that.

Time estimate by CEFR scale:

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  • Beginner (A1-A2): 100-500+ hours
  • Intermediate (B1-B2): 800-1700+ hours
  • Advanced (C1-C2): 2200-2500+ hours

Slavic languages

Includes: Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech

Slavic languages are often useful for careers in business and international relations. And they are also known for being the mother tongues of many great literary figures.

The dynamics of the various Slavic languages are highly intertwined, and knowing one Slavic language can mean you’ll be able to speak another one with relative ease (as is the case for the Czech and Slovak languages).

Since they’re in the same overall language family as the Germanic and Romance languages, English speakers might notice some familiar vocabulary in Slavic languages. 

But overall, Slavic languages are quite difficult for English speakers to learn. These languages sport dissimilarities to English in most aspects, so they truly can feel like lingual terra nova.

Learners often struggle with memorizing the Slavic language’s complex grammar rules, such as the use of multiple case inflections and difficult verb conjugations. The pronunciation of unfamiliar sounds can also prove challenging.

Time estimate by CEFR scale:

  • Beginner (A1-A2): 100-300+ hours
  • Intermediate (B1-B2): 500-800+ hours
  • Advanced (C1-C2): 900-1800+ hours

How Many Hours A Day Should I Study a Language?

For the casual learner

You’re the type who’s not overly serious about the language. You’d like to cruise through your studies, picking up learning here and there at your own pace.

The casual learner should try to put in at least one and a half hours (90 minutes) per week if they want to make progress in their language skills without major setbacks. Anything significantly less can weaken your studies and make improvements sluggish.

Due to the relatively lax study schedule, you can expect your skill advancement to “reasonable” fluency (say, B2-level intermediacy) to be achievable in terms of years.

For the reliable student

You’re the type who has a steady plan jotted out for your language studies. You do the work consistently, give yourself homework and review material as needed.

Most of the time estimates listed above will likely apply to this learner.

The reliable student should aim to study for at least three hours per week. Study times and lessons should also be scheduled beforehand and not randomly decided. That’s because a lack of consistency can make you prone to slacking off.

For the avid scholar

You’re the super student, the type who goes above and beyond in your studies. You’re keen to “live and breathe” your target language, so much so that you may even venture abroad to immerse yourself in it.

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The avid scholar may eagerly dedicate at least seven hours per week just for language learning. However, if the immersion method is utilized, it can be argued that language studies will be constant throughout the day. This can significantly speed up your language skill growth.

How Are You Learning Your Language?

How you get your language lessons can have a major effect on the time estimate. Many learners tend to have a mix-and-match approach and combine multiple study methods. Doing so can make you improve your skills quicker than if you’d just used one method.

Self-study

Best for learners who: are very self-motivated, need to work at their own pace, are resource hoarders

Time estimate: several years to reach mid to high intermediate level

Many language learners today classify themselves as self-study types. They’re not limited to any one type of learning resource, whether it’s a textbook, a website, instructional videos or even podcasts.

Consistent motivation is key to the successful self-learner. Self-study tends to be the method that takes the longest in reaching language proficiency. Also, the accessibility of resources can vary—more popular, widely-spoken languages are likely to have more resources available than less popular ones.

If studies are frequent and consistent, it can take a good handful of years to reach B1 or B2 proficiency. Also important to note is that “speaking” fluency tends to be imbalanced for self-learners who don’t practice their verbal skills.

Traditional language courses

Best for learners who: enjoy interaction and instant correction, need a set learning structure, are seeking test prep

Time estimate: a few years to reach high intermediate or low advanced levels

The classroom experience can be hard to grow out of, and there’s good reason why. You get a dedicated instructor who can provide direct instruction and feedback on your work. You’re given assignments and tests with deadlines and rubrics.

If you’re not a fan of in-person classes, you can also opt for any online language courses and learn from the comfort of your own home.

Complete beginners to a language (or to the language learning process in general) may find courses the most practical option for picking up A1 or A2 level basics. This is especially the case for more complicated languages, such as East Asian ones.

But because you’re expected to follow a curriculum, the lessons can feel very standardized and don’t always cater to your needs.

If your courses are regular, then it can take a few years to reach B2 level or even a little past C1 level. Note that many courses tend to have a stronger focus on meeting the levels of standardized language proficiency tests, which can mean more emphasis on reading or writing fluency.

Personal tutor

Best for learners who: prefer private lessons, have specific learning wants or needs, want an organized yet flexible schedule

Time estimate: series of months to a year to reach mid to high intermediate level

With a personal tutor (in-person or online), you can get individual instruction and feedback that can quickly and comfortably boost your skills. Private tutorship is also particularly useful for building conversational fluency.

It may take some time to find the right tutor who can accommodate to your learning preferences and schedule. In addition, some tutors, unless they’re qualified, may not be able to precisely gauge your skills.

If your tutor lessons are very regular and cumulative, then it may take a series of months to a year to reach the intermediate B levels.

Learning abroad

Best for learners who: thrive in immersion, want unrelenting exposure to language

Time estimate: a number of months to reach high intermediate level

Whether you join a school-hosted program or want to learn solo as a restless tourist, going abroad to learn a language is one of the fastest and most rewarding ways to achieve fluency. In a country that speaks your target language, your language practice will be constant and realistic, and you get to experience the culture around you as well.

The biggest drawback is, of course, the costs of traveling (which is separate from the costs of a language program itself). There’s also the fact that you’ll have to leave your home and all your creature comforts for an extended period of time.

To give you a taste of language immersion, there are free or affordable programs and software that you can try out at home. One example is FluentU, which lets you study with authentic videos made for and by native speakers. Each clip has tools including interactive subtitles, a video dictionary and personalized quizzes, so that you can understand the content and learn your target language as it’s used naturally.

If your studies are intensive and you actively apply your language knowledge everyday, it could take a matter of months to achieve high-intermediate language proficiency. A year or two can even edge you towards the advanced C levels.

 

Time waits for no one, so now that you have a better idea of what to expect, don’t dally!

Start your language learning journey and enjoy the ride.

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