When you’re studying a foreign language from scratch, how long before you can expect to become fluent?
The answer, of course, is tricky. I’ll give some time estimates at the end of the post, but before I get to that, I have to explain how I came up with my estimates.In my view, how much time it takes you to learn a language depends on four factors:
- The language’s difficulty
- How long and often you study
- The quality of your studying
- Your individual ability
I said in a previous post that all languages are hard, which is true. While I don’t think you should let a language’s difficulty deter you from learning it, you should absolutely know what’s ahead of you.
The US government categorizes languages according to how difficult they are for native English speakers to learn, with Category I being the easiest and Category IV being the hardest. (I’ve heard some rumors of Category V languages, but I haven’t been able to verify that anywhere.)
Here are some common languages, broken down by category:
- Categeory I – Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese
- Category II – German, Indonesian
- Category III – Hebrew, Russian, Persian, Tagalog
- Category IV – Modern Standard Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
(Update: I wrote this post early in my blogging career, before I fully realized that people from all over the world would be reading this site. If your native language isn’t English, these categories won’t apply to you, but I think you can use a little common sense to adjust the table to your own situation.)
I’ve seen some debate on forums about whether these categories are accurate. I’m not a professional linguist, so I don’t know. I do know without a doubt, though, that some languages are harder for English speakers to learn – significantly harder.
I think the categories are accurate enough to serve as a general guide. After all, getting a good handle on Chinese is going to take longer than doing the same with Spanish.
How long and often you study
I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. One of my favorite things to laugh at is the guy who says he’s been grappling for ten years. 90% of the time, that means he started ten years ago and after some initial enthusiasm, he now shows up for class once every month or so.
The same goes with language learning. If someone has been studying Korean for ten years, that doesn’t tell me anything.
A month of studying two hours a day, every day is much different from a month of studying 30 minutes a day, three times a week.
If you devote time to your studying consistently, you will get fluent faster than if you are sporadic.
The quality of your studying
I won’t go into too much detail on this, but if your study sessions are full of distractions or are not very well planned, it’ll take you longer to become fluent.
For now, some basic truths:
- Any study is better than none.
- Well-designed study is better than sub-optimal study.
- You have to work on your weaknesses, even if you hate it.
(UPDATE: My new book provides a study template to help learners optimize their study schedule. Take a look here if you want to avoid a lot of the mistakes I made when I first started out with languages.)
Your individual ability
Everyone can learn a foreign language. I know that because I’ve seen all sorts of people do it.
But just as it is with any skill in life – solving math problems, fixing cars, jumping rope, typing – some people just get languages faster than others.
If you’re a linguistic savant, you might be able to pick up Icelandic in a week. Or if you’re not as talented, it might take you much, much longer.
So how long will it take before I’m fluent?
In my view, fluency does not mean perfection or even being at a native-speaker level (which linguists define as “bilingualism”). Fluency means being able to maintain a conversation, forming coherent sentences and understanding replies. If you want something more definite, I define fluency as a 2+ level on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale, or B2 level on the Common European Framework of References for Languages scale.
Let’s assume that you have an average aptitude for foreign languages and that the quality of your study is decent. You can find out the amount of time to reach fluency in a language in the chart below.
As a reminder, the language categories are discussed earlier in the post. If your language isn’t listed, make a guess. If the language seems easy to you, put it in Category I. If the language seems really hard, put it in Category IV.
So as you can see, if you only study an hour a day, you have a long road to fluency.
However, if you study 20 hours a week (3 to 4 hours a day) you cut down the total time significantly. Get up to that amount of studying and you’re definitely on the right track.
Wrapping it up
I know there’s a risk you’ll become discouraged from this post, especially after all the marketing claims from language companies saying you’ll be speaking in no time at all. Please, keep in mind three things.
First, you can get plenty of benefits from a language without being fluent in it. I’m currently not fluent in German, but what I do know helps me out a lot in my day-to-day activities.
Second, it’s better to know the truth about the challenge ahead of you so that you can prepare yourself. It does you no good to think you’re climbing a hill that’s really a mountain.
And third, my estimates were indeed estimates. If you are immensely talented or have an awesome teacher, you very well may be fluent much faster.