Learning a language like French is an amazing process, and every stage of it can be very fulfilling. But time is money, and although we would all love to have limitless time to improve our French skills, the truth is that our personal and professional lives leave little time to learn a language.
And let's face it: whether it be for an upcoming vacation in Paris or a business trip to Montreal, you want to be fluent in French as fast as possible.
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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 look at these different factors and how they impact how fast you learn French:
If you already speak a foreign language or were raised bilingual, you may save yourself some time as you learn French. 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, and 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.
Even 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 roots will be easier for you to learn, and that includes French.
Believe it or not, you already know some French words even before you even start studying it. Almost all European languages share countless words and roots of words with English thanks to their shared origins, history, and evolution.
These words, known as cognates, make learning French much easier for people who speak a language with similar roots (like English or Spanish). The words "identification," "attention," and "direction," for example, exist in French with the exact same ending and just a slightly different pronunciation.
These cognates are your friends and can make learning French much easier and faster.
Here's a handy list of French words that you already know thanks to cognates.
Your learning methods also play an important role in how fast you learn French. If your learning is limited to a classroom setting, then it will take you a little longer to learn.
If, however, you are also exposed to French outside of classes, then you can cut down the time needed to learn it. Reading, listening to the radio or eBooks, writing, speaking, watching movies, and traveling to a French-speaking country can all help to speed up your learning process.
Naturally, the time it takes you to learn French also depends on how much time you plan to dedicate to learning daily, weekly, or monthly. Studies have proven that learners who 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 French 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.
Your attitude also plays a huge role in how fast you learn French. 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 therefore faster.
It'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 many people have language success, and also the number one reason some fail.
Reminding yourself why you want to learn French, how it will improve your life, and everything good that can come from learning it can help you stay motivated and, therefore, speed up the time needed to learn it.
The complex interaction between all of these factors determines how long it will take you to learn French.
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 French. Luckily for you, there are several studies that have 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 the language has been "learned."
As you may know (and speaking from personal experience), you don't 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 French long before you're fluent.
Realistic estimates in the field of linguistics have studied the number of hours really needed to learn a language like French and to be able to communicate well. The Common European Framework of 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 look at this in several different scenarios:
Scenario and the time needed to have an Intermediate Level of French:
At 3 courses per year, it may take you between 8.3-10 years to reach an intermediate level.
Between 5-6.25 years to reach an intermediate French level.
Approximately 3 years to achieve an intermediate level of French.
Approximately 3 months to have an intermediate level of French.
This calculation neglects many factors, however, and still is an overestimate of how long it could take you to learn French.
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 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, the faster you will learn that language. They divided their findings into four basic language categories based on the languages' similarity to English, which determined how long it took learners to reach general professional proficiency or higher.
Fortunately for French learners, French can be found within the first language group:
Language Group 1:
Obviously, this is a much more comforting estimate, especially when compared to languages in Group 4 (like Chinese, Japanese and Arabic) that can take an estimated 88 weeks to learn.
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 small, with only 6 students. 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 French, and help you calculate how many weeks - or months, or years - it may take 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 reduce how long it takes for you to learn a language.
Don't be discouraged; you can and will learn French faster than you expect. There are even cases (as the internet will surely tell you) of people who learn it in less than three months.
Now that you know how much time it takes to learn French and which factors can help you achieve your goals faster, it’s important to keep in mind that language learning is synonymous with practice. That means that reaching a certain level doesn’t guarantee that you will keep it for the rest of your life. Taking care of your French is like taking care of your pet: you have to feed it, cuddle it, and take it out for a walk every once in a while.
In the end, YOU decide how quickly you become fluent in a language and how good your skills remain. With the right attitude, dedication, situation, and motivation, any language is within your reach.
Ready to start learning? Sign up for a free trial of Rocket French below.