How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?
I’ve managed to go 2 1/2 years without writing a post on the topic of “How long will it take me to learn ____?”. Truthfully, I could go another 2 1/2 years without addressing it and I would be just fine. However, I continue to see this question asked on Language forums, in Facebook groups, on Twitter, and in my email. Somehow being able to quantify things like this just seems to be part of human nature. Well, I’m going to talk about this in depth and answer (or at least try to shed some light on) this question once and for all! So, how long does it take to learn a language? Let’s find out.
First off, let’s talk about what exactly we are asking here. “Learning” a language is never complete. One never “learns German” or “Learns Korean”. In reality, I find that most people are asking how long it will take them to reach “conversational fluency”, which by MY definition is:
1. I would like to be able to talk about myself, my family, my work, and my hobbies as well as ask others about theirs.
2. I would like to discuss specific topics that interest me (ie: languages, board games, sports, etc).
3. I would like to be able to talk about my day in detail and understand the same from a native or advanced speaker.
4. I would like to be able to discuss common everyday chat about typical subjects (the weather, food, movies, books, etc)
5. I would like to be able to speak with a reasonable accent at a consistent, fluid pace (even if that pace is substantially slower than native)
6. I would like to be able to understand the language spoken at a reasonable pace using fairly basic/common vocabulary.
I do NOT need to:
1. Be able to talk about politics or science.
2. Be able to have in depth philosophical conversations or debates.
3. Be able to speak at native level speeds.
4. Be able to understand subtle nuances (ie: jokes, undertones, double meanings, etc)
5. Be able to understand full speed native speech unless the vocabulary is fairly basic.
Ok, so this may not match up with EVERYONE’s definition but that’s ok. For the sake of consistency, MY definition is what we are going to go with in this post.
The other dilemma we come across in this question is the notion of this generic “how long?”. Well, if you study for 5 minutes per day, you could probably be fluent in French in about 50 years or so. If you study for 15 hours a day with a dedicated native tutor, you could be looking at less than 3 months. To account for this, I am going to stick to hours rather than days, months, etc.
Lastly, we are going to need to establish a native language to base all of this on. Learning Mandarin when you know Cantonese is easier than learning Mandarin when you only know English. Learning French for an English speaker is much easier than learning Korean as an Italian speaker. So, for the sake of argument (and keeping this post to under 10,000 words), let’s assume that our native language is English. Therefore, difficulties will be based on a monolingual English speaker.
How Long Does it Take to learn a Language? – The Official Numbers
Below is the infographic showing the “official” levels of difficulty for many languages based on the Foreign Service Institute’s experience in teaching them in an intensive classroom environment:
Via: Voxy Blog
Ok, well that settles it, right? Not so fast! One of the main things we need to consider is exactly why some of the “Hard” languages take so long to learn.
One example is Mandarin Chinese, a “Hard” language. Why is it hard?
So, from this we can conclude that the FSI rankings are based on proficiency in speaking, listening, reading AND writing. If Mandarin used an alphabet, we may well have seen it listed as a medium language.
So what does this mean? It means that your goals for the language can influence your learning timeline greatly. I’ve been studying spoken Mandarin only for about 6 months and am right on track to conversational fluency in one year. Had I included reading and writing in my goals, I would be looking at closer to 2-3 years.
So How Long DOES it Take to Learn a Language?
Truthfully, for a well-rounded fluency in a given language (all four skills to an equal level), the FSI chart above is pretty dead on. Obviously some will learn faster and some will learn more slower. There are three main things that will influence how quickly you progress:
1. Your motivation. If you aren’t motivated, you won’t learn. You have to have some sort of motivation to learn a language. It isn’t like digging a ditch where if you keep on digging, eventually it will get done. You can sit in front of a book all day and if you aren’t motivated, you will not learn.
2. Your Materials/Exposure to the language. Your abilities will never be higher than your source material. If you have one beginner book and no one to talk to, you will be stuck at A1/A2 no matter how well you know the material in that book. Exposure to many different materials and resources are a must to progress. At some point, to be conversationally fluent, you will need to have people to talk to to. Engaging in conversation early and often is the best way to progress in any foreign language.
3. Your language learning experience. Yes, this counts. Studies have shown (and Polyglots have revealed) that learning your third language is easier than learning your second. And it goes up from there. The big reason for this is that the more languages you have learned, the better understanding of how YOU as an individual learn best. Additionally, I think that you condition your brain in certain ways to improve linguistic memory as well as familiarity with other grammar structures and vocabulary.
We set out to answer the question “How long does it take to learn a language?” How did we do? Hopefully you don’t feel ripped off by this post. My intention was to give a glimpse into why the “How long does it take to learn a language?” question is so difficult to answer. There are a ton of things that weigh into it and truthfully it is impossible to give a one size fits all answer.
My final answer? Don’t worry about how long it will take you or how hard or easy a language is. Follow your heart, follow your passion. Learn whatever YOU want to learn. You won’t be motivated to learn the “easiest” language, but you will be motivated to learn the language you’ve always dreamed of speaking.
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