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How long does it take to learn a foreign language?

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The correct answer is: “it depends,” but you probably already knew that.

The next and most accurate answer is that it can take anywhere between three months to two years to learn how to speak, write, and read in a new language fluently.

A disciplined student who is being guided by a teacher, using the right learning methods, and learning a “category 1” language can gain intermediate fluency in as little as three months.

On the other end of the spectrum, the same student learning a “category 5” language needs two years to gain intermediate fluency.

What do these different “categories” represent? What factors can help you estimate how long it will take you to learn the language of your host country? We’ll go into detail below.

Five Factors That Determine How Long it Takes to Learn a Foreign Language

1. The Foreign Language Itself

There are five types of languages based on difficulty and study time required, as categorized by the Foreign Service Institute. The makeup of each language – its alphabet, grammar, pronunciation, and rhythm – ultimately determines the simplicity or complexity of learning it.

Let’s assume you dedicated 25 hours during the week to practice the language of your choice. How much you would have progressed in learning that language depends on which category the language belongs to.

Category 1 includes languages closely related to English, such as French, Italian, and Spanish. These will take a solid 600 hours to learn, or 6 months, to attain a level of General Professional Proficiency.

A Category 2 language, like German, is slightly more complex and takes an additional 2 months – for a total of 750 hours to attain that same level of proficiency.

Category 3 languages, such as Indonesian and Swahili, possess a moderate level of complexity and require a total of 900 hours, or 9 months, to attain proficiency.

Languages predominant in most Asian countries fall into Category 4, in which each language requires 1100 hours (nearly an entire year) to attain proficiency.

Lastly, Category 5 contains the most complex languages in the world, such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. These require English speakers to invest 2200 hours, or almost 2 years. That’s twice as long as any category 4 language to attain proficiency!

2. Your Expectations (Desired Proficiency)

What is the level of fluency, or proficiency, that you’re pursuing? Maybe you just want to become conversationally fluent in Spanish, or perhaps you’re learning for a future career abroad.

Perhaps you’re a hobbyist polyglot who dabbles in new languages and focuses mostly on nailing the basics. Maybe you hope to be a fluent expat someday.

Every language learner has unique purposes and goals, and it helps to know what yours are so you can accurately estimate the hours required.

Use any of these three scales to help you decide where your desired proficiency falls:

  1. The ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) scale consists of five levels from elementary proficiency at level 1, all the way up to native or bilingual proficiency at level 5.
  2. The CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) for Languages consists of three levels: A (basic user), B (independent user), and C (proficient user).
  3. The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) guidelines are broken up into 5 main levels: novice, intermediate, advanced, superior, and distinguished.

All language learners should keep their end goal in mind. If your goals are for travel, basic vocabulary and grammar are enough to get your point across. If you eventually want to become a translator, you need advanced vocabulary skills and grammar precision.

In any case, setting the right expectations up front increases your chances of achieving your goals.

3. Your Background

Transferable skills help you learn closely related skills more efficiently, in many areas such as language learning.

In linguistics, mutual intelligibility is a concept that enables you to learn or recognize closely related languages and dialects with greater ease. In other words, if you spend the 1100 hours required to learn Hindi, you can learn its closely related languages – Gujarati and Urdu – in a fraction of the time.

In the three European language families, Germanic, Romance, and Slavic, some languages have such strong mutual intelligibility that different speakers can converse with each other by simply using their own language!

Still, you should beware of asymmetrical intelligibility. For example, Italian and Portuguese speakers can understand Spanish faster than a Spanish speaker can understand Italian or Portuguese.

Other factors that determine the time required to learn a language include your existing familiarity with foreign languages, as well as your previous exposure to the language within your circle of family and friends.

4. Motivation, Attitude, and Mindset

When learning any new skill, you’ll quickly find that it’s more technical, repetitive, and perplexing in nature than you imagined. You might get bored, frustrated, and discouraged at times, and that’s when you’re truly tested.

Successful people anticipate these moments and fight through them by sticking to the plan. They stay calm, knowing that the answer to whatever challenge arises will inevitably appear.

They maintain a “growth mindset” and embrace the struggle, trusting that they’ll not only achieve the goal with time, but also come out stronger as a person. They fixate on the work at hand, engage in positive self-talk, and refrain from associating their inability to do something with their sense of self worth.

Foreign language anxiety, AKA xenoglossophobia, is a real battle which many travelers, whether they’re aware of it or not, have to triumph.

Mastering even the easiest of languages will test your resolve during your study sessions. The more you’re able to persist through these moments, the more you relax through the puzzling concepts.

“If you are interested in something, you will focus on it, and if you focus attention on anything, it is likely that you will become interested in it. Many of the things we find interesting are not so by nature, but because we took the trouble of paying attention to them.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life

In summary, every hour of language learning is not equal. The 600 hour estimate can quickly stretch to 800 or 900 hours if you regularly find yourself befuddled, frustrated, or easily distracted.

5. Teachers, Techniques, and Tools

Imagine two players working on their jump shot in basketball: one’s a self-taught learner who trains on his own using books, apps, and watching basketball films. The other learns the fundamentals from the coach on her high school basketball team and also trains on her own.

If both players practice 1,000 hours on their jump shot – perfecting their basic shooting form and range – the second player will likely become a more accurate shooter. She’ll receive expert instruction and immediate feedback, and quickly develop proper shooting techniques.

She’ll learn and use mental strategies, such as shot visualization and breathing exercises, to harmonize the mechanics of her mind and body. She’ll benefit from discipline, encouragement, and mentorship from coaches and teammates that the self-taught learner won’t.

Either approach is better than having no approach at all, but if you can hire a private instructor, you should certainly consider it.

Having a good language teacher either through group classes or one-on-one tutoring speeds up your learning process immensely. Getting into the habit of using learning tools, such as books, games, and mobile apps also speeds up your progress.

Finally, getting familiarized with (meta)cognitive techniques and learning strategies can really help:

Final Thoughts

You can learn the language of your host country with a slow and steady approach of self-study, or you can take a fast and furious approach with professional help. Either way, always keep your goals and overall purpose in mind.

Guest Author: Raj Shah is a senior manager at TakeLessons. You can check out the TakeLessons blog here!

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