Quick question. Does it take three months or two years to learn a foreign language?
The answer is yes.
In other words, it depends.
How long it takes to learn a foreign language is determined by many factors: your learning methods, background, natural ability, mindset, and ultimate aims, not to mention the target language itself.
Here are some basic parameters.
If your purpose is to travel in Europe or South America, you should be able to master the basics of Spanish, Italian, or French in as few as three months (150 hours) of intensive daily instruction and self-study.
If your goal is to work or study abroad in a country whose language does not closely resemble English, you will likely need two years (2200 hours) in order to attain working proficiency, or half that to manage the essentials of daily life.
Between these two extremes lie myriad possibilities.
Where do you fall on the spectrum?
Let’s take a look at 5 factors that determine how many hours, months, or years you’ll need to reach your language learning goals.
1: The Language Itself
With decades of experience training U.S. diplomats, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) identifies 4 categories of languages based on how each language compares with English. Unsurprisingly, the more different the language is from English, the more difficult it is for an English speaker to learn.
Category 1: No problema.
A mix of Romance and Germanic languages closely related to English, such as Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish, fall in this bucket. These relatively easy-to-learn languages take somewhere between three months (150 hours) to 30 weeks (750 hours) of daily intensive study.
Category 2: Sprechen Sie Deutsch?
This classification, which includes German, Indonesian, Malay, and Swahili, closely resembles English in many ways, but grammar twists and cultural considerations tack on several more months of study compared to Category 1 menu options. Plan on 36 weeks (900 hours) or more.
Category 3: Climbing Mount Everest
Marked by significant linguistic as well as cultural differences from English, these languages will take at least 44 weeks (1100 hours) of intensive study to achieve proficiency. Let’s round up and call it a year for Albanian, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Polish, Russian, Somali, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese (the list goes on.)
Category 4: Boots on the Moon
This exclusive sphere is reserved for exceptionally challenging languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, which will demand your full attention for 88 weeks (2200 class hours)–basically two years of your life.
2: Proficiency Goals
Needless to say, the proficiency level you desire affects the timeframe. While a translator needs fluency and accuracy (two years), the basics (three months) may suffice for a traveler.
To understand how language proficiency is measured, you might want to familiarize yourself with three common assessment scales and their level descriptors. Applicable to any language, the rubrics identify practical skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
- The CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) for Languages consists of three broad levels: A1 (Basic User), B1 (Independent User), and C (Proficient User), each of which is split to make six levels: A1/A2, B1/B2, and C1/C2. The CEFR outlines each of the six levels with exhaustive “can-do” statements.
- The ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) is a government organization engaged in foreign language use across federal agencies. The ILR scale consists of 5 levels: Elementary Proficiency, Limited Working Proficiency, Professional Working Proficiency, Full Professional Proficiency, and Native or Bilingual Proficiency. Like the CEFR, the detailed ILR level descriptors elaborate on the comprehension and communication skills of each level.
- The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) is the top national organization for language educators. ACTFL identifies 5 main levels–Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished–while also subdividing the three major levels Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice into High, Mid, and Low sublevels.
To sum up, the CEFR, ILT, and ACTFL cut the same cake in different ways.
Getting a taste of how assessment rubrics work helps you set realistic expectations. You can see where you are and where you want to go.
As a general rule of thumb, the benchmark proficiency levels in order to work, live, or study in a host country equal CEFR B2, ILR Level 3, and ACTFL Level 3 (Advanced High). The number of study hours identified above by the FSI are based on attaining this proficiency level.
3: Your Mindset
Here’s a fun word: Xenoglossophobia.
That’s the feeling of anxiety, dismay, and fear experienced while learning or speaking a foreign language. (xeno = foreign + glosso = language + phobia). Frustration, boredom, and defeatism can foil the best of intentions, slowing progress, even scuttling the endeavor.
Whether you’re polishing your college French or just dabbling with Japanese characters, a can-do attitude is imperative. Discouragement and self-doubt can stretch a planned-upon 150 hours to 200, 250, 300 hours.
- Consistency is key. Successful language learners make a plan and stick to a routine. Practicing every day builds momentum to carry you over the inevitable bumps in the road.
- Growth mindset: This buzzword caught on for good reason. In contrast to a fixed mindset, a growth mindset sees the brain as malleable to change and abilities as open to improvement. Talents are not innately fixed, and skills are endlessly adaptable. Embrace the process, cultivate curiosity, and take pleasure in small victories.
- Failure is not personal: It’s tempting to attach our self-worth to success. But making mistakes–countless, copious mistakes–is not only inevitable but necessary to learning a language. So maintain positive self-talk and see setbacks as opportunities rather than losses.
- Engage your passions. Use the language to explore areas of interest, whether gardening, social justice, or jazz music. Vocabulary gets “stickier” when writing about topics near and dear to your heart, whether family history or science fiction favorites.
4: Tools and Teachers
Self-taught speakers can make substantial progress, especially when sticking to a routine that involves a variety of tools: books, apps, games, videos, and informal conversation circles.
However, even the most motivated and disciplined autodidact benefits from guided instruction. Whether in a classroom or one-on-one setting, an instructor mentors the learner, providing the immediate feedback, encouragement, and expert insights that speed up language acquisition.
The ideal scenario combines self-study with tools and language classes with a teacher.
Regardless, the fact remains we tend to forget most things we learn. Whether working alone and with an instructor, the learning tools you employ matter. Here are a few examples:
- Mnemonic devices help you transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. A few examples:
- Rhymes, like the leap year poem “Thirty days hath September…”
- Acronyms, like when English learners use the acronym FANBOYS to remember the 7 coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.
- Chunking, like when you remember phone numbers by separating 10 numbers into 3 separate chunks.
- Acrostic is when make a sentence Every Good Boy Does Fine to remember the line of the treble clef EGBDF.
- Diglot Weave Technique (DWT) is when you insert words from the new language into a sentence in your native language. In other words, you make bilingual sentences to learn vocabulary, especially verbs, nouns, and adjectives.
- Brain soaking is a term coined by New Zealand linguist Chris Lonsdale. Brain soaking recreates the experience of a child who listens and “soaks” in language before producing it. The process is more akin to intuitively acquiring language rather than deliberately learning it. As an adult, brain soaking means you constantly listen and “take in” the language even if you understand little of the content. Glean the gist from body language, intonation, and situational context as well as the basic vocabulary you do know and cognates (if applicable.) For instance, run Spanish TV in the background during chores or drive to the tune of French audiobooks. Soak in the rhythm, intonation, and patterns.
- Spaced repetition is a fancy way of describing how you use flashcards to learn vocabulary. The idea is that new and more difficult words are introduced and repeated more often, while older and easier cards are pushed to the back.
5: Previous Language Learning
Did you take college German? Have you dabbled in Spanish and want to give Portuguese a try?
Your background may give you a leg up. When learning a language in the past, you may have cultivated effective study habits, established mnemonic systems, and accumulated a repertoire of cognates.
Speaking of cognates, the concept of mutual intelligibility refers to a situation when speakers of related languages can understand and communicate with one another. Being closely related Germanic languages, Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are mutually intelligible, so if a Dane, Swede, and Norwegian walk into a bar, they can have a conversation as well as a drink.
In fact, a learner may be able to transfer vocabulary knowledge, grammatical structures, and pronunciation skills from one mutually intelligible language to another. Once learners get a foothold in one West Slavic language–say, Czech–they may be able to leapfrog to another–in this case, Slovak–relatively quickly.
Beware, however, of asymmetric mutual intelligibility, in which speakers of Language A understand speakers of Language B but not the other way around. A well-known example is that of Portuguese and Spanish, two Romance languages. A Portuguese speaker can pick up Spanish faster than vice versa.
The Big Picture
Realistically, as a working adult you may be able to devote only a few hours per week to learning a language. That’s okay.
A hundred hours of weekly classes stretched out over a year may not yield working proficiency but may enable you to exchange essential information for limited personal or professional purposes.
It all depends on your unique situation. Maybe you’re a volunteer at a bilingual charity or a polyglot watching foreign films with subtitles. Maybe your job entails specific tasks that require basic Spanish, German, or Turkish. In this case, you may be able to acquire the necessary communication skills after, say, 50 hours of class time over the course of several months.
To accelerate language acquisition, your primary focus should be comprehension, not accuracy. After all, the goal is communication. Nobody’s tabulating scores.
To get started with any language all you need is a handful of vocabulary. You can say literally hundreds of things with just a dozen core verbs and nouns. Mix them up to communicate as many different ideas as possible, even if in a rudimentary fashion, whether serious or silly. Mimic the facial and mouth movements of native speakers to reproduce new sounds.
Draw pictures, play games, and join a classroom community. Soon you’ll know hundreds of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, allowing you to express thousands and thousands of ideas in the past, present and future.
Saying as much as you can with whatever little you know helps push you through the initial 10 or 20 hours. From there on out, be mindful of the tips above and enjoy the journey onward and upward.
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- Great ways to learn Spanish online and why it’s important.
- Top 7 reasons to speak and learn Spanish fluently in the USA.
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- The Rejection of Perfection in Learning a Language
- Spanish is Darlene’s Superpower: Interview with Darlene, a Spanish language student living in the USA.
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- Kathy Learning Spanish (again): Interview with a Spanish language student living in the USA.
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- Takehiro Rises: Interview with an ILI English student from Japan who built a career in the USA.