How Long Does It Take To Learn A Language?

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Hey guys!

Today I wanted to address one of the most asked questions by language learners, and potential ones. This is, of course, the question of “how long does it take to become fluent in a language?”. I remember well that when I was learning my first language (French) I was constantly asking myself and everyone around me this very question. I would spend a lot of time googling things on the internet, or by annoying Luca Lampariello or Steve Kaufmann with emails. It’s strange, really, that there is such a burning desire among learners to have this question answered, when really this question can’t be answered (even by the most seasoned polyglot) with any certainty whatsoever.

I received this email a couple of days ago:

Hey Dan,
I watched your French video on Youtube and was really inspired. I’m also a LLB/BA student, and I’m considering picking up French next year. It’s such a beautiful language and I’d love to speak it fluently one day.
Do you think at 21 years of age, I can attain a fluent level of French if I start learning now? How long do you think it will take and what learning methods do you recommend.

So, why can’t this question be answered? Well, anyone can give you an estimate fact or figure, but in reality it can’t be answered accurately because the rate you get fluent in a language is entirely contingent on:

  1. Your motivation. The more motivated you are to learn a language, and your ability to maintain that motivation and not lose interest is the single most influential thing on the success you will have. Exposure alone, in the form of classes or from being in-country, is not enough to learn a language beyond the basics. This is evident from countries like France, where the kids learn English from a young age, yet who after 10 years of study have little more than a feeble grasp of the language.
  2. The time you invest. In all honesty, it takes a lot of time in terms of raw hours in order to learn a language to fluency. It gets easier and faster the more languages you learn (Steve Kaufmann recently learnt Romanian in a couple of months), but your first one will take longer than the rest. The good news is that I believe that the time spent learning langauges provides a fairly observable return on investment, meaning that the more time you put it, the more you will notice yourself improving. I believe that as long as you reach a ‘threshold’ minimum amount of time per week, then fluency is an inevitable result (ideally you should study every day, though). There is a cause-and-effect relationship between the time you spend and the closer you get to fluency, if that makes sense. The extra silver lining is that it really is an amazing experience learning your first language – also, I truly believe it brings you a huge increase in cognitive power. The extra competitiveness in the job market it gives you is only a secondary benefit to me. I plan to learn languages long into my old age – I think it could be the secret to staying lucid.
  3. Frequency of study – this is kind of related to point No.2, but it is important enough to have its own point! The frequency in which you study is extremely important to your success. One hour a day is ideal (and hey, if you want to do more, do more!), but one hour a day is better than 7 or even 10 hours once a week. Language learning is an organic and natural process that humans are inherently good at, but your brain needs constant exposure in order to familiarise itself with a new language.

 

Also, I think that listening is the single most beneficial thing you can do for your language learning. If you don’t listen, you will never be able to understand the spoken language, and if you can’t do that, then how will you ever be able to speak with people? I spend 90% of my language learning time listening. I try to listen for an hour a day, during my dead time.

Linked to your motivation is your confidence and belief if your actual ability to learn a language. This is what many people have the most trouble with. When you’ve never successfully learnt a language before, it’s hard to imagine yourself successfully doing it. Part of this stems from not knowing exactly how much information is needed to be learnt before you are ‘fluent’.

To address this problem, what I suggest to all you budding language learners out there is this: try to adopt a ‘fake it until you make it’ mentality with your language learning, and just believe in yourself that you will succeed; and to just learn a love and appreciation for the actual language learning process itself, regardless or not of you are becoming fluent or even progressing. Both these things are essential if you have the problem I just outlined. Confidence you will succeed is essential. Also, in contrast to the confidence needed to pick up girls, etc., all you have to lose here is that you don’t end up becoming fluent (which I believe is only possible if you simply give up and stop studying). Also, a love of learning about the how another language works, and of the actual activities you do in your language learning routine, is equally essential to your success. If you don’t enjoy your language learning workout, I can’t see you sticking at it long enough to get fluent.

Okay, okay. I promise to study. How long will it take?

I think that if you put in an hour a day, then in a year your would be very comfortable with the language, and well on the road to fluency. I would say you would be conversationally fluent. Then, you could spend a month or so in France, and you would certainly be fluent. Without going to France, I think you could be absolutely fluent in 2 years. That is a conservative estimate!

However, like I said, it all comes down to the individual language learner, and to your experience learning languages. For example, due to the fact that I’m fairly comfortable with my methods by this stage, and due to my knowledge of French and Spanish, I am fairly confident that I could become fluent in Italian in about 3 months. In fact, I plan on testing that theory eventually (after I’m done with Chinese).

In terms of age and language learning –  age does not really come into it to much until far later on in life. Some 50 year olds may struggle, but then again, I have a 60 year old in my class that manages fine! And look at Steve Kaufmann, he must be nearly 70 by now, and he is still learning languages at an extremely rapid pace. Certainly 21 is not too old to start learning a language!

Hope you guys enjoyed the post!

Author: Dan

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  • Ah, the million dollar question! I agree with the importance of listening – I honestly didn’t realize *how* important it was until I started self-studying Spanish. As for how long it takes to learn a language? I think I would have to answer a lifetime. I’m still improving my native language every time I come across a new word! But I do think that you’re right that conversational fluency is attainable well within a year – depending on how much time you put in, which language you’re focusing on, and your background in learning new languages. And in my experience as a teacher, a motivated adult can generally learn a language much more quickly than a child.

    • Hi Stephanie!

      Neither did I! I didn’t realise how important it was until I was learning Spanish, too. With French (my first language), I was living in-country and so I guess I was getting constant listening input from people around me.

      I also completely agree that language learning is a lifelong journey – but for impatient 20 year olds such as myself, we are looking for a more attractive answer than that 🙂 I do think that fluency can be achieved in a year with the right motivation, although of course you’ll always keep improving for the rest of your life.

      Are you a language teacher?

      • Yes, I teach French. I teach a professional immersion class (6 hours per day for 10 months) that takes people from zero to fluent. I only started being a language learner last spring – and now I’m kicking myself for waiting so long! I should have started learning languages years ago…

        • Oh, wow! Where abouts do you teach? As in, which country! I’m guessing you must have been brought up as a bilingual English-French speaker if you’ve only been learning languages since last spring? Which languages are you learning? Language learning is such a beneficial activity in so many ways.

          • I’m Canadian. I grew up bilingual (thanks Mom, Dad and dual official languages!). I’m currently learning Spanish – I feel like I’m progressing quickly, probably because I can use my French as a crutch. I’m going to focus solely on Spanish for a few more months, and then start learning Tagalog in November. I’ll do that slowly – about half an hour a day – while still spending the bulk of my learning time on Spanish.

            No one warned me when I started Spanish that I’d become obsessed with languages. Ha!

          • Ah, nice!
            I wish I spoke another language from childhood. Nowadays I speak French at home with my brother, though. French is so useful when learning Spanish! I learnt Spanish almost exclusively through watching TV on seriesyonkis.com, and I don’t think I would have been able to do that had I not had a base in French.

            I really need to get my Spanish back up to scratch though – that will be more of a priority this time next year when I’ve finished my exchange in China! I just watched your YouTube video of you speaking Spanish – that is really really impressive! Great job. Is there a way to subscribe by email to your blog?

          • Thanks for the link! Another good site for watching Spanish shows (and other languages too, although I’m not there yet) is dramafever.com

            I don’t have email subscription to my blog because I’m a WP newb and haven’t figured out a way to do it without using a newsletter service. And I don’t want to use a newsletter service because I don’t feel comfortable sharing my home address – I live in a village of 1500, so it’s not like living in a city and using a PO Box. I hope to *eventually* have email subscription, if I can figure it out.

  • Hi Dan. Excellent post and great blog you have here!

    It makes me happy to see more Australians actively writing about language learning.

    • Hi Donovan!
      I’m a big fan of your site!
      Thanks for stopping by my blog, glad you enjoyed it. And yes, apart from us two, I’m not aware of any other Australian language blogs (although I’m sure they’re out there). Do you know of any?
      Dan

  • Manimal

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks! This is a great motivation! I would also say that the teaching method and teacher have an astounding affect on your ability to learn. A lot of universities that teach Chinese, teach in a very old and traditional fashion. You learn about how to plant flowers and silly stuff like that.

    So you can’t really hold a conversation with your average person to practice (unless you have a common hobby of planting flowers). I found that the BRIC Language method is more practical. I can actually talk to people about useful things as I try to become fluent.

    Do you have any suggestions for listening material though? I am not really into these really predictable, low quality Chinese dramas…

    • Hi Manimal!
      Sorry about the late reply, thanks for reading though!

      Definitely the teaching method of your teacher can make or break your Chinese learning experience in the early stages – however as you progress to an Intermediate level (and beyond) the role of the teacher diminishes greatly. They can only really assist in clearing up questions that you may have in the course of your solo study (going beyond the classroom is the only way to get fluent). After all, languages can’t be taught, per se, only learned.

      The Chinese course at my University is exactly the way you describe – in fact I have learnt already about planting flowers, raising birds and a bunch of other useless stuff. Haha.

      Have you checked out ChinesePod? For my listening I use it almost exclusively in addition to the free version of LingQ and also Slow Chinese. Plenty of interesting content to be found!

      • Manimal

        Thanks Dan! I hadn’t heard of any of those, so I’ll have to check out LingQ, ChinesePod, & Slow Chinese. I also know that CCTV had some free online materials, I just didn’t like the lack of interactivity.

        Thanks again, I appreciate what you’re doing on your site. (^.^)