Wondering how much time it takes to learn another language? I get these questions all the time. In this post, I’ll attempt to answer this question.
One of the things that I enjoy doing is teaching languages and passing on the knowledge that I’ve learned to others. While I still don’t consider myself a language expert, I love sharing, studying, teaching, writing, and talking about different languages of the world.
I am often asked two common questions: Best Foreign Language to Learn? and How much time does it take to learn a new language?
These are quite tricky questions to respond, and unfortunately, there’s no easy way to answer it. However, we all deserve the answer. No? After all, how can we start our fascinating journey of language learning without knowing which language to study and time required to learn a foreign language?
While I wrote several articles for the first question, I think that the time has come to answer the second one.
If you’re planning to start learning a new language or you’re already learning one, you might be wondering how much time you’ll have to devout to accomplish your goals. It is one of the most troublesome questions for a majority of language learners. You’ll surely want to have some idea of when you’ll get there, right?
The answer, of course, is tricky since several factors come into play.
The short answer to your question is, which no one likes “it depends.” Several factors influence how long it takes to learn a language. The answer can vary significantly based on your choice of language, the method, techniques, the person, objectives, the time devoted to it, learning style, and many more.
“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The Truth — Language Learning Takes Time
People can be very impatient. Everybody wants the quick solution for everything!
For many of us, as soon as we start studying a new language, we want to be great at it, which will enable us to get a high-paying language job in India and abroad, or maybe some extra points by clearing French TEF or TCF exam for Canada PR.
Whatever may be the reason to learn a language, most people want to achieve success as fast as possible!
The one thing that often comes to our mind, “Shouldn’t I be fluent by now?” or Do I have a career in foreign languages since I am already studying for the last few months? or maybe “How to become a professional translator or interpreter in 1 year?”
No matter where you look, you’ll find many answers to these never-ending questions that are either unhelpful, exaggerated, inaccurate, or downright misleading. The internet is full of such rubbish claims.
There are two main reasons for this.
(i) Everyone wants to learn another language quickly!
Let’s face it; No one wants to spend a considerable amount of time in language learning.
Think about this — Which one you’ll prefer to read “How to learn any language in 3 months?” or “Why learning a language takes several years?”
I can guarantee that probably at least 95% of you will choose the former one.
Because the person is looking for answers such as “you can do it in 2 months”, or “it takes about six months to get a job.” In short, a precise and short amount of time.
The search engine suggestion is also based upon how frequently queries are asked. It’s a natural trait of human psychology to look for quick and easy fixes to problems that they have to face during language learning.
If we don’t achieve any meaningful competency level fast enough, we usually say to ourselves, “I think I’m not very good in languages” or “Language learning is not my cup of tea” … and then we give up! Underestimating the time required is one of the primary cause of why we don’t succeed in language learning.
Thus, they write about what you want to hear and not the ugly truth. It may look outrageous. They, however, are not entirely to be blamed. After all, they write what most people are interested in.
(ii) Quick path to success always sells!
Have you ever googled “Tricks to learn a new language fast?”, or “Magical books to learn a foreign language?”, or “Best Apps to learn any Language quickly?” or “Secrets about How to Learn a New Language in 3 Months”?
You might have seen plenty of companies that sell language learning books, online courses, products, apps or software may claim that their unique techniques, proven method or exclusive study materials will guarantee fluency in a few months.
The funny thing is many of these products are “research-backed” and offer tons of track-record with convincing testimonials to convince you that they are the real secret deal.
But as always in most cases, this over-exaggeration is just their marketing way of selling their products. Obviously, this is one of the many language learning myths and reasons you will fail to learn a language.
If something Sounds Too Good to Be True, It Probably Is.
Don’t be fooled by these aggressive and clickbait advertisements and promotion that promise you can learn a foreign language in some brief period.
The last thing you should be wasting your time on is endlessly searching and researching on the internet to see the best language tricks which will help you to acquire any specific language in a brief period of time.
Unfortunately, there is no such method; at least I never found one. Don’t fall into the trap of innovative sales and marketing strategy.
The truth of the matter is that learning a new language takes a long time. I’m not talking about months but years! So arm yourself with plenty of patience, everlasting persistence, and a lot of determination.
How long does it take to learn a language from scratch?
The acquisition of a new language is a complex phenomenon that is different for each individual based on multiple various factors. As per my own experience, the required time depends mostly on three factors: Language Difficulty, Proficiency level, and how you learn!
There are a variety of ways to estimate the long does it takes to learn a new language — and when you can reasonably expect to reach your language learning goals.
In this article, I’ll give you some rough estimate and time required to learn a foreign language, but before I get to that, I’ll try to do my level best to explain how I came up with my estimates.
1. Language Difficulty Level Variation
Even if all languages are equally complex. All languages, however, are not equally hard to study. Some are harder than others.
Your first or native language can also determine which languages will be more easy or difficult to master. For example – A Korean student will probably take much longer to become fluent in Portuguese than someone from Spain or Argentina because there are more similarities between Spanish and other Romance languages like Portuguese.
The writing system also makes a significant difference. Again, it will be easier to learn German if your native language uses a Romanised script. If you are used to writing in Japanese, Korean or Chinese characters, or even Persian, Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Thai, Bahasa, etc., you need to learn an entirely different writing style too, which eventually will take more time.
By far the most popular, widely quoted opinion on the planet earth is from the FSI, the US Foreign Service Institute. The FSI study reflects their 70 years of experience in teaching various languages. They have divided languages into five groups of difficulty for speakers of English.
Since most Indians interested in pursuing foreign language already speak English, well, at least most people can understand elementary level English. Thus, FSI research can be useful to explore the Foreign language difficulty level for aspirants looking forward to learning a new language in India.
This list is based on the average time for a student to achieve lower advanced level proficiency, though the actual time can vary based on several factors. I have only considered important and popular foreign languages in India to keep it as simple as possible!
|Category||Total Hours to Learn||Languages|
|Category I (Easy)||1200 Hours||Spanish, Swedish, Romanian, Danish, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese.|
|Category II (Not so Easy)||1500 Hours||French|
|Category III (Moderate)||1800 Hours||German, Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili.|
|Category IV (Hard)||2200 Hours||Mongolian, Russian, Turkish, Czech, Thai, Persian (Farsi/Dari), Bulgarian, Finnish, Tibetan, Polish, Hungarian, Vietnamese* and most of the Indian languages.|
|Category V (Very Hard)||4400 Hours||Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese*, Korean|
* Usually more difficult than other languages in the same category.
The total number of hours is based on an approximate 1:1 ratio between time spent in the classroom, and time spent practicing or studying on own. Remember, that’s to get to the heights of Advanced Proficiency like CEFRL C1.
How to calculate the required time?
Imagine you spend 12 to 15 hours per week focussed effectively on your language including classroom training, then it will translate into almost 2 years to learn Spanish, Italian or Portuguese, 3 years to learn French or German, 4 years for Russian or Tibetan or Turkish, and approximately 5 years to learn Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese or Korean.
Of course, this is just a rough estimate. While the above list is based on the average time for a student to achieve higher proficiency, though the actual time can vary based on many factors.
2. What Level of Fluency Are You Trying to Achieve?
Everything starts and ends with this question.
What are the reasons to start learning a new language?
You can learn how to say Good Morning. How are you? Goodbye, Thank you and some essential conversations in your target language in a day or two!
If you’re trying to be conversational, or learning survival phrases to enhance your travel experience…. and perhaps make some small talk or confidence enough to order meals, book a hotel room, or ask for a direction? Maybe a few months to 1 year!
What about learning a language as a long-forgotten hobby?
While you can learn the Korean Alphabet Hangul in just 1 day. If however, you want to enjoy the enthralling and entertaining K-Drama or K-Movies without subtitles. I would say 4 to 5 years! It may seem like a significant time to most of us, but then Learning a language like Korean takes time!
Do you need to learn to work in any MNC or BPO or any Export-house as a language specialist? Maybe 2 to 4 years depending upon the language difficulty! Estimate about 25% less of that allotted time from the above list of difficulty level.
Are you trying to reach near-native fluency to make a career as a translator or Interpreter? Or, may you want to know how long will it take me to speak “fluently”? My answer for both is at least three to five years, maybe more.
The lower the level you’re trying to achieve, the less time it will take for you to reach there. Of course, you could learn just the elementary part and call it quits or to native proficiency and become a successful language expert.
You can try these three most commonly used scales of language attainment CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) and ACTFL – (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) to help you decide where your desired proficiency falls.
The time needs to be measured in hours, not months or years. It is necessary to define your learning goal means (what do you want to do? and then to explain that in linguistic terms i.e., what levels of proficiency do you need. Setting the right expectations upfront increases your chances of achieving your goals.
But don’t let all these research and statistics scare you! The statistics don’t count the human factor. Millions of people around the globe are learning and assimilating new languages every day.
If you think about it, three to five years to study any language isn’t that long. Think about the future. Few years down the line, you might be well along toward mastering the language of your choice, or whether it will still be only a dream. Well, the selection is natural!
3. How you study the language – Method, Techniques, Guidance, and Tools
The more you study, the quicker you learn is not always the case!
While self-study or online courses do help to some extent, but there is no doubt that we need language teachers.
Of the hundreds of people, I’ve seen learning various languages, only about 10% succeeded in achieving the higher level of competency.
Almost all of them studied through on-campus classroom environment, either in any University or any Institute. The bitter truth is online courses are not practical.
Most people who try online or distance learning courses quit sooner than later before achieving any meaningful proficiency. There can be a varied range of reason such as lack of discipline, right guidance, too many choices thanks to an ever-expanding digital world, classroom interaction, and competition.
It can be frustrating, but it’s important not to get discouraged. Ability to speak with reasonable fluency in any language requires patience, practice, and perseverance, but the advantages are well worth it!
What you need are a good teacher and easy-to-understand language learning methodology. Having a good foreign language teacher either through group classes or one-on-one tutoring speeds up your learning process immensely.
Are you ready to get started? Find a reputed learning center or an experienced language trainer.
Successful language learners know that there’s no silver bullet to language learning, so they don’t waste time searching for it. There is no perfect technique for you.
I have seen many wasting too much of time in finding the perfect method, locate the right source, book, blog, youtube videos, podcast, but after amassing these materials, they never sit down to get started not to mention getting beyond the first few pages.
When you keep procrastinating, you will never come close to achieving your goals, even as you keep rotating in the ‘failure’ corridor.
What you need is a few good books, audio and video lessons, zeal to learn a language, a great teacher. That’s it!
You have to determine your language journey to success by employing SMART goal-setting — whatever that means to you.
Besides, I’d say, focus on developing the habit of learning a little bit every day. You need to make sure to have enough interest and passion, build up confidence and motivation, create steady learning habits, engage in exciting material, take the help of your teacher, and practice regularly.
Then eventually you will learn the language. As long as you do those things and keep them up, sooner or later, you will inevitably learn to speak any language with confidence and fluency. I’ve seen these traits first-hand in a diverse set of successful people.
At the end of the day, the answer to how long it takes to learn a language depends mostly on you. This is the question you should be asking.
Although some people have a knack for learning languages but for most of us learning a language takes time, effort, dedication, and hard work, regardless of how it is done. It is always better to be realistic about how much time you can spend learning.
All these estimates and research are only a guideline, and it doesn’t consider several other factors. Learning any language is not walking in a park, and it does take a lot of time, but it is entirely achievable.
As Paulo Coelho once said, ‘When you want something all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’ So the path may be steep and uphill but definitely not impossible.
If you are willing to learn any language because you feel that you should do it from inside your heart, then you might reach your goal earlier. With the right attitude, passion, dedication, and motivation, any language is within your reach.