We want to learn a foreign language, and we want to learn it as quickly as possible. 90 days, 30 days, 10 days...
But is it really possible to speed learn a language?
Today, we'll take a look at what it actually means to learn a language and whether or not you can really learn a language in just a few weeks or days. Can I really learn a language in just 10 days? Most of the "learn a language fast" advertisements seen online promise incredible results like "learn a language in 1 month," "2 weeks" or even just "10 days." They typically don't go into great detail about how they'll actually help learners achieve this, which leaves most wondering, "Is it really possible?"
Yes and no.
First of all, anything is possible with the right method, motivation and dedication. Some language programs will definitely prepare you with practical language elements within the timeframe they promise, but you will definitely not be fluent. You won't be able to talk with anyone about absolutely anything in your foreign language, but you will know some of the basics that can help you survive in a foreign country without being completely lost.
Likewise, 2 months, 2 weeks, or 10 days isn't really indicative of the amount of time and work you need to put in to learn a language. These timelines are merely attention-grabbers that aren't promising you "instant skills," but are rather promising the basics in as short a time as possible. This can be done through the use of learner-friendly teaching methods and by teaching you the most practical vocabulary and grammar first. It will, however, take much more time to be able to fully converse in a language in a variety of different situations.
So how long does it really take to become fluent?
Well, that depends on your definition of "fluent." Defining Language Learning Levels Before asking yourself how long it takes to learn a language, it's important to define what "learn," "speak," and "fluent" mean to you.
Let me give an example.
I have a friend who went to Italy for a few weeks and learned the basics to get around. She can successfully ask for directions, navigate her way through a train station, and order a glass of her favorite wine. According to her, she "speaks Italian," which, of course, she does. But she's far from fluent.
The moment a native Italian starts to speak with her about something that isn't the way to the bathroom, how she's doing, or what she would like to order, she's stuck. She speaks enough to get by, but not enough to fluently communicate. While she may "speak Italian," I probably wouldn't recommend that she puts it on her resume just yet.
So what does it really mean to be fluent in a language?
It's all about the level. According to the European Common Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a guideline used to define language achievements, there are three basic language level groups broken down into two levels each.
While there is no level called "fluency," the description of each level can help to give you an idea of your current ability, goals, and what you really consider to be fluent: Level A1: In this level, you can:
- Understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases.
- Introduce yourself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where you live, people you know and things you have.
- Interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly.
- Understand sentences and frequently used expressions related very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment, etc..
- Communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information.
- Describe in simple terms aspects of your background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
- Understand the main points of communication on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
- Deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
- Produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
- Describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
- Understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
- Interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
- Produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on an issue with its advantages and disadvantages.
- Understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.
- Express your ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
- Use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
- Produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
- Easily understand virtually everything heard or read.
- Summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
- Express yourself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
Many speed learning language programs, however, use the ambiguity of terms like "speak a language" to advertize A1 results in a short period of time.
Can you learn some of the basics of a language in 7 days?
Can you be fluent in 7 days?
So if speed language learning isn't all it's cracked up to be, how long does it really take to learn a language? Language Learning Timelines Let's take a look at two of the best estimates as to how long it really takes to learn a language.
The first estimate is based on the previously discussed Common European Framework for Reference for Languages.
The CEFR also provides a "Guided Learning Hours" framework to measure the amount of total classroom time needed to reach a B2 (high intermediate) level, the level that is commonly associated with fluency. This framework 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 needed to become fluent in a language.
Let's take a look at what this would mean for some common language learning scenarios: CEFR Sample Timeline Scenario 1:
- One 3-hour course per week for 8 weeks, plus weekly homework assignment (1 hour), independent practice of any type (2 hour). 3 courses per year.
- 120 total hours 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 fluency
- 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)
- 192 total hours per year
- Between 5-6.25 years to reach fluency
- Dedicated independent study (1 hour per day)
- 365 total hours per year
- Approximately 3 years to achieve fluency
- Total, active immersion (8 hours per day)
- 2920 total hours per year
- Approximately 3 months to reach fluency
That's where the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) language learning study and timeline comes in.
In 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 school. 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, probably 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: FSI Timeline Language Group I
- Languages Closely Related to English
- Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish
- 23-24 Weeks (575-600 Hours)
- Languages similar to English
- 30 weeks (750 hours)
- Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
- Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili
- 36 Weeks (900 Hours)
- Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
- Amharic, Bengali, Burmese, Croatian, 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
- 44 Weeks (1,100 Hours)
- Exceptionally difficult languages for native English speakers
- Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean
- 88 Weeks (2,200 Hours)
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 become fluent in 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.
Check out our Top 10 Spanish hacks for some ideas on improving the effectiveness of your study time! You Can Do It While it may not be possible to become fluent in a language in just 10 days, it IS possible to learn the basics in a short period of time and move on to becoming fluent within a reasonable time.
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.
What about you? Do you speak a foreign language or are you learning a foreign language? How long has it taken you to reach your current level?
Feel free to share in the comments section below!