This is one of the first questions anyone interested in language learning asks, and unfortunately, there's no easy way to answer it. Learning a language is a complex process that is different for each individual based on several different factors.
Let's take a look at these different factors and how they impact how fast you learn a language:
1. Your Previous Language Learning ExperiencesIf you already speak a foreign language or were raised bilingual, you may save yourself some time as you learn your next language. Bilinguals find it easier to learn a third language, as several linguistic studies have proven. This is because they are naturally more accustomed to being exposed to different languages, since fluency and skills in one language aid fluency and skills in another.
If you're not bilingual or multilingual, however, don't worry: even that year of Latin in high school or that family trip to Mexico was helpful. One of the first steps to learning a language is learning a little bit about what makes up a language and the unique linguistic aspects of the language you want to learn. If you have already experienced studying foreign grammar, memorizing vocabulary, listening to different sounds and looking at different letters, your mind knows what to expect when faced with a new language. There aren't as many surprises and language learning becomes easier and faster. Just being exposed to different languages--especially when one of those languages is the language you wish to learn--can make language learning faster.
2. The Language You Are LearningEven if any foreign language looks "Greek" to you, many languages are actually more similar than they are different. Learning a language that is similar to your native language can save you time when learning the alphabet, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. As a general rule, languages that have similar roots are easier and take less time to learn. For those of you whose native language is English, that means that any language with Latin or Germanic roots will be easier for you to learn. This includes Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Afrikaans, among several others.
3. How You Are LearningYour learning methods also play an important role in how fast you learn a language. If your language learning is limited to a classroom setting, then it will take you longer to learn a language. If, however, you also are exposed to the language outside of classes, then you can cut down the time needed to learn the language. Reading, listening to the radio or eBooks, writing, speaking, watching movies, and travelling to a country where the language you are learning is spoken can all help to speed up your learning process.
4. The Time Dedicated to LearningNaturally, how long it takes you to learn a language also depends on how much time you plan to dedicate to language learning daily, weekly, or monthly. Studies have proven that learners who are willing to dedicate an hour a day to language learning--whether that be by studying grammar, memorizing vocabulary, watching a movie, or reading a book--learn significantly faster than those who just attend a weekly class. That's why online programs like Rocket Languages work so well for many language learners: they encourage frequent study and are easy to access on a daily basis. And that's also why full immersion is, by far, the fastest way to learn a language.
5. Your AttitudeYou attitude also plays a huge role in how fast you learn a language. If you approach language learning with a positive attitude and see it as a fun and fascinating opportunity to broaden your horizons, you'll be more open to learning. You'll be more motivated to study and learn as much as possible, and the entire process will be more enjoyable and, consequently, faster.
6. Your MotivationIt's no secret that staying motivated is key to learning a new language. There have been so many studies proving the importance of motivation in language learning. Staying motivated is the number one reason why many people have language success, and also the number one reason why some fail. Reminding yourself why you want to learn a language, how it will improve your life, and everything good that can come from learning a language can help you to stay motivated and, therefore, speed up the time necessary to learn the language.
Getting Down to Business: a TimelineThe complex interaction between all of these factors determines how long it takes an individual to learn a language.
But you don't just want to know all of the factors, do you? You want a timeline. You want numbers. You want to know just how long it will take you to learn a new language.
Luckily for you, there are several studies that sought to tell us just that.
But first, a disclaimer: In many of these studies, language proficiency or fluency is the bar set to determine whether or not the language has been "learned." As you may know (and speaking from personal experience), you don't necessarily need to be fluent to be able to speak a foreign language and to be comfortable interacting in that language. A low intermediate level can get you pretty far in the language world. Keeping this in mind, it's important to take these studies with a grain of salt and remember that you can and will be able to interact in a foreign language long before you're fluent.
The 10,000 Hour Expert TheoryIn his book Outliers, author Malcom Gladwell focuses on a study originally published in a Harvard Business review with the basic premise that it takes 10,000 hours for an individual to become an expert of anything, whether it be a musical instrument, a field, or a sport. If we consider complete fluency in a language being an "expert" in speaking that language, then we can assume that a learner must invest 10,000 hours to reach an expert level, which can be broken down into several different language scenarios:
Scenario and the period needed to become an expert;
- One 3-hour course per week for 8 weeks. 416 courses to become an expert. At 2 courses per year, it may take you 208 years to become an expert
- One year of language learning in school (4 hours per week X 12 weeks X 2 semesters). 104 years to achieve an expert level
- Dedicated independent study (1 hour per day). 27 years to achieve an intermediate level
- Total, active immersion (8 hours per day). Approximately 3 years to achieve an intermediate level
Don't panic!! This is a very, very simplified way of looking at language learning, and is proven to be way too reductionist. It doesn't take into account any of the other important factors in language learning, and discounts the interaction of different scenarios. If, for example, you have previous language learning experience, are learning a language that's similar to your native language, and try and practice with friends or family outside of the classroom, it's possible to become fluent within just a few years. It's also really important to keep in mind that this study focused on reaching an EXPERT level, something that even native speakers often don't have.
More realistic estimates in the field of linguistics have taken this theory and significantly cut down the number of hours really needed to learn a language and be able to communicate well. The Common European Framework for Reference for Languages, for example, uses a "Guided Learning Hours" framework to measure the amount of classroom time total needed to reach a B2 (high intermediate) level and assumes that for every one hour of classroom time, learners will spend two hours of independent study time. In the end, this equates to a total of between 1,000 and 1,200 hours.
Let's take a look at that with our previous scenarios:
Scenario and the period needed to have an Intermediate Level
- One 3-hour course per week for 8 weeks, plus weekly homework assignment (1 hour), plus independent practice of any type (2 hour). 3 courses per year. You will need between 25-30 courses. At 3 courses per year, it may take you between 8.3-10 years to reach an intermediate level
- One year of language learning in school (4 hours per week + 2 hours of homework + 2 hours of independent practice X 12 weeks X 2 semesters). Between 5-6.25 years to reach an intermediate level
- Dedicated independent study (1 hour per day). Approximately 3 years to achieve an intermediate level
- Total, active immersion (8 hours per day). Approximately 3 months to have an intermediate level
A little more comforting and realistic, isn't it? Once again, though, this calculation neglects so many factors, and still is an overestimate of how long it could take you to learn.
The U.S. Foreign Service Institute TimelineIn their study, the Foreign Service Institute examined a group of native English speakers between the ages of 30 and 40 who were studying foreign languages at their institute. The students' resulting levels were measured using the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale with the goal being to calculate how long it took students to reach "General professional proficiency" or higher.
According to the FSI, the closer a language is to your native language (in this case, English), the faster you will learn that language. They divided their findings into three basic language categories based on the languages' similarity to English, which determined how long it took learners to reach general professional proficiency or higher:
Here are the language groups, their characteristics, related languages, along with the minimum length of training for General Professional Proficiency
Language Group I:
- Languages Closely Related to English
- Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish
- Training required 23-24 Weeks (575-600 Hours)
Language Group II:
- Languages similar to English
- Training required 30 weeks (750 hours)
Language Group III:
- Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
- Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili
- Training required 36 Weeks (900 Hours)
Language Group IV:
- Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
- Amharic, Bengali, Burmese, Croation, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Pilipino, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Thai, Tamil, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese
- Training required 44 Weeks (1,100 Hours)
Language Group V:
- Exceptionally difficult languages for native English speakers
- Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean
- Training required 88 Weeks (2,200 Hours)
Therefore, according to FSI findings, the more similar the language you are learning is to your native language, the faster you will learn that language.
It's important to note the conditions of the study, however. The students' schedule called for 25 hours of class per week plus 3 hours of daily independent study, and their classes were generally small, with no more than 6 students. In other words, these were almost ideal language-learning conditions, something that is important to keep in mind, since many of us don't have that kind of time to dedicate to language learning.
This study can be used to help you estimate how many hours it will take you to learn a language and calculate how many weeks--or months, or years--based on how much time you wish to dedicate per week. Keep in mind, however, that the quality of your study is more important than the quantity, and immersion experiences or daily practice can significantly limit how long it takes for you to learn a language.
Don't be discouraged; you can and will learn a language much faster than you expect. There are even cases (as the internet will surely tell you) of people who learn a language in less than three months.
In the end, YOU decide how quickly you become fluent in a language. With the right attitude, dedication, situation, and motivation, any language is within your reach.