We’ve all been there, right?
Toying with the idea of learning a foreign language?
After reading up on how other people have done it, you might be thinking, “Hey, maybe this thing’s not impossible! Maybe I can learn a new language on my own!”
But then you remember those language classes in high school or university.
You think, “Man, did I really spend two years learning Spanish/French/German/Chinese with nothing to show for it?”
As doubt creeps in, you then wonder, “How long does learning a new language take, anyway?”
How long until you own the language?
Until you can navigate a foreign country flawlessly in it?
Until you can proudly tell friends, family or employers that you speak the language?
All Beginners Want to Know How Long Learning Their Language Will Take
People don’t want to waste time, money and resources tilting at windmills. They want predictability. After all, karate has its belt system, musical instruments are graded and you can work through certain problems to increase your skills in math or programming.
There are some standardized structures for languages, too, but since the real test is often how well you can use it, the levels may at first seem less defined and harder to grasp.
Learners may worry that they’re not talented enough to learn a language. After all, only a handful of students are good at languages in school, right?
Learners feel rushed by their own lofty goals. After all, you want to use the language right now, don’t you? You want to watch TV or play games in the language—and understand everything—as soon as possible. Or maybe you’re hoping to break into a new field where the language is particularly helpful or lucrative.
To start with what’s out there, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has published data about the major world languages. For an English speaker taking intense classes, it would take six months to learn Spanish to a “professional” level, and nearly two years to learn Korean to the same level. But take this information for what it’s worth—we can’t all take classes through the FSI, and we don’t all have unlimited time (or money) to spend on languages!
There are infinite factors at play here—so what’s the answer? How long does it really take to learn a language?
Honestly, this question doesn’t have much of an answer.
I like to think of it as a Buddhist koan, or a question wrongly asked. A question intended to provoke doubt and thought rather than a simple, concrete answer.
There is no algorithm that lets you punch in data to get the length of time it’ll take to learn your language!
A simple Google search will come back with a thousand blog posts that will tell you the same thing: It depends.
What can we do with that? Not a whole lot.
So instead of answering this riddle with a particular length of time, this post will give you a better idea of the factors at play and how to manipulate them.
Follow these four steps beyond the unanswerable riddle!
How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language? 4 Steps to Reach Beyond the Riddle!
1. Define what you mean by “learn.”
And you thought your question was simple, didn’t you? Wrong!
You’ve got to ask yourself a tough question here. What does a “learned” language look like to you?
The answer will vary widely from learner to learner. Even simple concepts everyone talks about (such as fluency, for example) are difficult to define and measure. Does fluency literally mean the ability to speak fluidly? Does it include a high level of literacy? Do you need to be able to function as well in your target language as you do in your native language? What does it mean to you to be fluent in a language?
You’ll have to decide these things for yourself. I recommend checking out the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) scale used in the European Union to measure professional language proficiency. It breaks down language levels into specific and well-defined areas, in both passive (reading and listening) and active (writing and speaking) skills.
What level will you be happy with? Are you a dabbler who wants some conversational skills before your big trip to a new country? Or has this particular language always been of interest, and you won’t rest until you know it like your native language? Or is it a dead language that you’ll never need to speak, so a high reading level will suffice for you?
For best results, include all four skills in your goal setting: reading, listening, speaking and writing.
Furthermore, take into account how you like to practice! If you’re an outgoing conversationalist who loves to talk to new people, your conversational and basic listening skills will surge ahead, but perhaps at the expense of reading and writing. If you prefer reading, then that’s the skill that’s going to get good. If other skills are important to you, just know that it might take longer for lesser-used skills to catch up.
And finally, think about the breadth of subjects you want to discuss. If you study for about an hour a day for a year, you’ll probably be able to engage in conversation and read a newspaper. But it’ll take much more time to acquire the skills necessary to read classical literature or to participate in a discussion about your work or field of study.
2. Decide how much time and effort you can put in.
It’s pretty much common sense that the more you put into learning something, the faster you’ll get something out of it. If you immerse yourself in the language, live in the country and spend a couple hours every day at concentrated study, you’ll get good at the language and fast.
However, some of us have demanding jobs and families or other responsibilities. We can’t all pack up, quit our jobs, leave the country and become linguistic hermit-monks.
If you can only study half an hour a day, three times a week, it will definitely take you longer to get good at your language, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile project! It certainly doesn’t mean you’ll never reach your goals. Keep going for it!
For those of us with a little more flexibility (but short of the linguistic hermit-monk type of flexibility), think about the goals you’ve set. How lofty are they? And how can you engineer your life to accomplish those goals?
If you want to understand TV and movies, maybe you can give up some English (or other native language) media and replace it with media in your target language.
An easy way to do this is by learning with FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
If you want to speak with confidence, make some time to find an online conversation partner, and make sure you practice speaking consistently.
If vocabulary is something you want to improve, wake up fifteen minutes earlier each day and get in some SRS reps before work or school. You can listen to target language music and podcasts during your commute or your walk to class. The possibilities are endless!
There’s one caveat: If you do have the lifestyle flexibility of a linguistic hermit-monk, don’t think you can trick nature into giving you native-level fluency in ninety days. Sure, you’ll make quick gains in some areas, but you can’t make a Faustian deal with the devil to learn a language in a ridiculously short period of time.
Some things in language learning simply take time. Remember: A language quickly learned is a language quickly lost. Short periods of time devoted to learning can mean weaker retention if you happen to slack off for a couple of weeks. On the other hand, if you go at a steadier pace for a longer period of time, a couple weeks off won’t hurt you as much.
3. Figure out if your desired language is related to one you know.
Language families matter! Look up the language you’re interested in and figure out if it’s something close to what you know. Most European languages are distantly related, but some languages like Danish and Swedish are so similar, many consider them to be dialects of each other. A language like Farsi will be easier than Arabic for an English speaker because it happens to belong to the Indo-European language family. Arabic is Afro-Asiatic and doesn’t share much at all with English.
If you learn a language close to one you already know, the time it takes to learn that language will be reduced in proportion to how close the languages are. You can “cheat” a little when it comes to vocab and grammar. Simply put, you’ll get some parts of the language for free—certain grammar patterns will be similar or identical, and you’ll recognize some vocabulary.
As an example, I’m a native English speaker, and French was the first foreign language I learned to any significant level. I learned mostly through immersion and heavy SRS usage, and it took about a year to get comfortable in the language—to express myself and understand most of what I heard and read. A few years after that, I learned Spanish, and the difference was practically night and day.
With French, it took me awhile to wrap my head around some features that are common in Romance languages (a subfamily of the Indo-European family, all of which are descended from Latin), such as certain complicated verb conjugations and heavy use of the subjunctive mood. But with Spanish, I picked these up much faster because I already got the general idea from French. I reached a similar “comfortable” level in Spanish at about nine months. It was like starting a language that was already half-learned!
If you’re curious about your chosen target language, do some research! Try checking it out on Wikipedia and reading a little bit about it academically. If you’re interested in an Indo-European language, find it on this easy-to-read family tree. Note its close relatives and which languages share common ancestry. If it takes several branches to link your target language and your native tongue through a common ancestor, then you know the two languages are a bit further removed than if the languages had only recently split from a common ancestor. Similar family trees are just a Google search away!
So, what does this mean for you? Should you deliberately choose closely related languages? Should you choose Dutch if you’re an English speaker or Czech if you know Polish?
My advice is this: Learn the language that really appeals to you, armed with the knowledge that an unrelated language will have a steeper learning curve. Motivation to learn a language you genuinely like will keep you going when the learning gets tough, so being aware of language families is only meant to keep you informed.
Adjust your expectations! Refer back to the FSI chart if you’re a native English speaker, and keep those levels in mind so that you don’t lose confidence.
4. Expect the long haul, and enjoy it if you can!
I know this sounds a little pessimistic, but it’s really meant help you stay positive as you embark on your language learning journey.
You’re interested enough to try learning a language, so go for it. Jettison that old myth that language learning is a hard slog with rewards only at the end of the line, when you’ve achieved fluency. The Internet allows you to learn using movies, TV, video games and books—it’ll be fun right from the start! Learning a language is one of the most rewarding hobbies you could take up, and I’m talking about the process of learning, not having learned a language.
Nevertheless, expect learning a language through self-study to take something on the order of years rather than months, keeping in mind that learning through classes alone would take much longer. I expected learning French to take about two years to get to a level at which I would be happy, and I was pleasantly surprised when that time period turned out to be much, much shorter.
Language just isn’t something that can be rushed. Linguist Stephen Krashen writes about how certain infrequent grammar points simply take time to “click,” even for children and toddlers! It just isn’t something that you can sit down and drill into your head.
Think of it as acquiring language instead of learning. Expect it to take time for your language to grow, and enjoy the process—there’s no rush.
Besides, you’ll forget all about this tricky koan once you’ve gotten addicted to target language TV dramas and hip hop!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.