How Long Does It Take to Become Fluent?

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.

By Star for Life [CC BY 2.0] Image Source

By Star for Life [CC BY 2.0]
Image Source

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

Language Difficulty

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.

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  • fairefaerie

    As a former US Army Linguist, I can vouch that the only Cat V language is English. I had a Sgt that learned English via the military (he was native Korean) and said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

    • Ron G.

      Awesome, thanks for the info! English is definitely tough when people are trying to learn it properly.

      • joanne

        English is for sure NOT easy when one wants to learn PROPER English, not just simple basic sentences, potentially with mistakes just to get by. People are mistaken to think English is the easiest language out there. Proper English in fact, and proper English grammar is far from easy!

        • Lance Hewison

          Yes, for example one could adjust your sentence to a more successful degree:

          English is not an easy language to acquire if one wishes to learn proper English, and not simply utter basic sentences laden with mistakes solely for the purpose of the most basic interactions. People are mistaken in thinking that English is the easiest language out there. Proper spoken English and proper English grammar are, in fact, far from easy.

          Language is fun.

    • Laima

      English is the easiest language of the ones I tried to learn…

    • sonofjay817

      Not to be contrary, but I had to go to Germany last year for work and while there I met a Filipino lady who had married a German and she also spoke English. She told me that German was harder for her to learn then English.

      • zoi

        That is because English is their second language in Philippines.


      • fairefaerie

        My ESL friends have told me that English is very easy to learn colloquially, but not properly. That’s what’s supposed to be very difficult – learning the grammar associated. However, I am not ESL, so I can’t vouch myself.

    • Teodora Maria

      I disagree, my first language is romanian. I learned English, German and French and English is the easyest of all three.

    • quiet_kitten

      Categories depend on the language you speak natively. English is not a Category V language to a Spanish speaker. Arabic is a Cat V language to an English speaker.

  • Phil C.

    Nice article Ron. Shared on our Rocket Languages FB page.

    • Ron G.

      I appreciate it. Thank you!

  • Alex Escomu

    According to many people I asked to, Esperanto is the easiest one. Here’s a polyglot talking Esperanto after one day

    Yeah, English is tough, natives have problems with pronunciation/writing (if they don’t know word) and phrasal verbs make no sense to foreigners. Here’s a proof, the poem Dearest creature in creation

  • Chance Glasford

    So are these numbers based off of learning a foreign language in a country that doesn’t speak the language? Any idea on how fast it is accelerated if you actually are residing in the country? Say a study abroad program or move their for employment? What is the advantage of simple immersion? Do you feel that you can replicate that at all by streaming radio/tv and movies from that country?

    • Ron G.

      Hi, Chance. These are just estimates, but I based the numbers on “meaningful exposure” to the language–studying, attentive listening, etc. I’m sure it’s accelerated to a degree in the country because you’re surrounded by the language all day. Going to the grocery store exposes you to hundreds if not thousands of words, in context, in the form of labels, aisle signs, chatter, and so on. (You’d be surprised, though, at how much you can isolate yourself from language in a foreign country if you’re determined enough. I have colleagues who lived in Germany for a decade, but didn’t learn any German since they worked and lived with Americans.)

      So the short answer to your question is, living in country will help speed things up, if you do things right. I met a guy from Milwaukee who spoke Arabic very, very well after living in Cairo for a year. He took four hours of classes a day and conducted all socialization entirely in Arabic.

      • Chance Glasford

        Danke! Yeah found it much easier to learn the language while attending university there for 6 months. I ended up getting a minor in German Language but since graduation have let it slip and I am now trying to regain some of my knowledge and skills and I am finding it much more difficult but I am using internet radio, TV streaming, German movies on DVD and now your site. I am also contemplating purchasing a language computer program and or attending classes. Any suggestion on a PC program? I would like to get to a proficient/high proficient level again.

        • Ron G.

          Awesome. If you keep up with it you’ll be just as good, if not better, with German in no time. All the stuff you’re already doing–radio, TV, movies–should definitely remain the foundation of your efforts. What you have going for you is that a) you’ve learned the grammar once, and even if you need a refresher, you at least have paid attention to the patterns, and b) time in country actually using German to communicate. Your brain is primed to start soaking up German again like a sponge!

          As far as PC programs, I like Duolingo, which is free and very good; Babbel, which costs something like $13/month and also very good; and Readlang, which is free but has an option to pay like $25/year for full functionality. (I really, really like Readlang for pushing my language to the next level.)

          If you need practice speaking, iTalki is a pretty good website to find language exchanges and relatively inexpensive tutoring.

          Please keep me informed on your progress. I’m very curious how quickly you’ll progress.

          • Chance Glasford

            Thanks for the tips. I checked out Duolingo and readlang both look rad! I will be using them.

            I ran across this article as well, which I found interesting.


            any thoughts on this?

            or the site that they recommend? have you used that at all?

            Thanks again!

          • Ron G.

            I think those are good tips in that article. I’m not crazy personally about Anki, but a LOT of people swear by it. (I like spaced repetition, but I like having a little more control over my cards.) It’s a free download, so I think it’s definitely worth a try.

          • Andy Alt

            Deutsche Welle has a good web-based interactive German course:


            They also offer an English and Russian course.

            There’s a message forum at where native German speakers are very welcoming to people learning German.

  • Khaled Deathdeath

    its kinda cool that i natively speaks a cat. IV language :)

    • Ron G.

      Definitely! English and native Arabic (I’m assuming) is a great combo.

  • Owain Clarke

    I thing English is the easiest – I had learned it pretty well by the time I was 3 or 4 even though I was trying to learn a lot of other stuff at the same time

    • vice2vursa .

      due, you were 4, languge is easy as shit when you are younge idiot.

      • Owain Clarke

        Errr…. it was a joke! But thanks anyway your comment made me laugh for a long time :)

  • Andrew Hamilton

    I am studying Brazilian Portuguese but am at a somewhat intermediate level. I am living in Brazil for about 5 months with 4 people one of them that knows English. Everyone else speaks absolutely no English and only speaks Portuguese which I believe will challenge my brain 24/7. I asked for my friend to not to speak to me in English, only when it’s the obvious appropriate time. Do you think Ron G that the 2 months I’m surrounded by English all around and then with a somewhat base arriving in Brazil living their for 5 months truly interacting with the natives I could be 70% or more fluent in Portuguese. What’s your honest opinion on that.

    • Ron G.

      Hi, Andrew. First, that sounds like an awesome experience and I think you’re going about things exactly right.

      I think your success hinges a lot on the 2 months of studying before you get to Brazil. I read an article stating that you get the most out of an immersion environment when you come in at an intermediate level. Is that right? Not 100% sure, but it sounds accurate to me. You said you’re pretty much there already. If it were me, I’d shoot for 2 hours of studying and meaningful exposure to Portuguese a day, and more if possible, just to make sure that you’re really ready for the day-in, day-out challenge.

      Now, to answer your question. Getting “70% or more fluent” in Portuguese is very possible in your scenario. I have no doubt that by the end, you will be able to communicate, understand the most common words and phrases, and have real conversations with people. Basically, you’ll be able to get around and actually use the language.

      What I’m guessing you won’t be able to do is understand high level news or philosophy texts word for word, but will sometimes be able to infer general meaning. You’re going to be spending so much time using day-to-day language that you won’t be worrying about academic language. Really, that’s not a bad thing, because you’re making the language come alive and establishing a really good base. The high-level stuff can come letter.

      I wrote another article about language proficiency:

      So I think a B1 level is pretty much guaranteed in your case, and a B2 level is probably very possible as well. Most importantly, you’ll really be using the language by the end.

    • Ron G.

      Hi Andrew! Any updates?

      • Andy Alt


  • D.S. Ryelle

    As you may have guessed by FaireFaerie’s response, those American government categories are the same as those used by the military’s translators.

  • Abbey Bishop (thefaultinourlip

    I’ve been studying Italian for 10 years through school. Why am I not even half-way fluent yet?

    • Ron G.

      Hi Abbey! I think this article gives a good general guideline to give people a “reality check,” but it definitely doesn’t tell the whole story on language learning. (If you have a chance, take a look around the site for more info/ideas.)

      I can’t say for sure what’s going on in your particular case. If you’ve been taking classes, 9 years should be plenty of time to reach your goals.

      A couple possibilities (and again, I don’t know if this is what’s happening in your case):

      – Not enough practice actually *using* the language – I used “studying” as a generic term in the article, but the problem with classes is that students tend to do a lot of studying and not enough “using.” To continue making progress, you should be listening, reading, speaking, or writing the language every day. In particular, speaking practice is important, because as a skill, it’s a beast unto itself; kind of like riding a bike, there’s no better way to get better at speaking than by speaking. And if you haven’t already, transition from the text books to actual communication.

      – Not enough time. Sometimes, if you rely on classes too much, you’re only spending two to three hours a week on your language. That’s not enough time to drive real progress. Italian has to become an integral part of your day.

      …there are other factors, but those are the two big ones. The good news is that with 9 years of classes, you have a great base. I bet you’re even better than you realize. When you get out and start practicing speaking and watching TV and using the language, it’ll be rough at first, but I have a feeling you’ll make exponential progress.

      …if you have any specific questions or want to discuss a specific learning routine or troubleshooting, send me an email at I can sense your frustration and I’d be happy to help.

  • Kojak0

    I have a suspicon about something… I have heard from a colleague that she is from an English speaking country and have been in my country (non-English, about level II) for 7-8 years, and she is so fluent I actually suspect her to be native, not a foreigner. Is it possible to learn a language to this degree in so few years?

    • Ron G.

      I think so, yes. For all the back and forth about the values of “immersion” in foreign language learning, when you live in a country and use the language daily, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to get up to that high level of fluency. Admittedly, not everyone takes advantage of that opportunity, but some people do.

      Also, your colleague may do some things instinctively (or purposely) that other people don’t, like working on accent reduction, which may help her pass off as being “local.”

      • Kojak0

        Hm. That could explain a lot. Thanks for the clarification.

      • Faniel

        I agree with Ron. I speak both French and Creole. I’ve learned English and Spanish in school. Since I was majoring in computer Science back home, I had to enhance my English skills because all the computer languages were written in English. I must admit that my English was ok. I could easily get by and people were able to understand me (Some people corrected me when I made a mistake). I migrated in the U.S. 5 years ago, I can tell you that leaving in an environment where the foreign language is spoken is the best method to learn that language and become fluent faster. Values of Immersion. I am now trying to brush up my Spanish skills, and I find out that it’s the hardest thing to do since I don’t get to practice every day. I believe that leaving in a spoken Spanish country could have made a tremendous difference. Great article!!!

  • Marc

    Hello all… for a complete method to become bilingual, I found this website which isn’t bad:

  • BlackRose278

    I’d actually like to know what category Scottish Gaelic would be? I’m pretty well of with Spanish, and I’m an English native speaker, but I would love to learn my own culture’s language :)

    • Ron G.

      Hi! I would guess you could estimate it as category 2 or 3. German and Indonesian are categorized as 2, and languages like Tagalog, Russian, Hebrew, and Farsi are categorized as 3. Should be able to give you a rough estimate of the time required.

      BTW, I think it’s great to learn your culture’s language. I studied Tagalog fairly seriously last year because my mom is from the Philippines. I’m not even close to fluent (and have taken a break) but it provided me with some foundation knowledge of the language, and it was very rewarding.

      • BlackRose278

        Thank you for the information! 😀 My book just came in to learn from!

  • HopeToSoonSpeak4Languages

    I just think that based on the person and based on the enthusiasticy of a person will they be able to learn a language. Think: A person who aspires to learn Korean will learn it faster than the guy whojust chose the Korean class in high school to just get by. There are so many languages to learn, and the selection process only makes it even easier to see which language suits your taste.

    If you aspire to speak French, but are a native Italian speaker, then go for it! If you absoloutely hatethe idea of learning the French Language, then you are not going to last long on the fluency chart.

    There are no categories in my opinion, as a native Spanish speaker may soar through the skies with French but struggle like heck with German. I try to learn Russian, but the language is more than a mouthful for my tongue, on the same token, they may think the same about English.

    ENGLISH TIP: English (especially in the States) is going to have a lot of mistakes and cliques in it. The guy in Wisconsin is going to have a different take on English in comparison to the guy from Ohio. Just like in Africa in a lot of places, thier take on English is going to a lot more different than that of Australia, and I also understand that in other countries some sounds spoken in English may be ommitted in your own native tongue (For Example: In Spanish, the J sound sounds like an H, the H in Spanish and French is gone.

    To wrap up the content, everybody learns it at their own pace, and with a little dedication, you can speak a language, not easily, but climb up to the point of fluency, and accuracy (Language is like a game of darts, you hit or miss, depending on your fancy and dedication to educating yourself in the language). Really, the author of this webpage does hit many, many, many marks on the board, but I disfute the idea of a category. First and foremost, zeal helps with your competency in another language (As stated above, if you dislike the idea of learning Swahili, you are going to struggle with learning Swahili in comparison to the Swahili learning enthusiast who wants to absorb the language like a sponeg), so if you want to learn Japanese, depending on your native tongue, there will be tons of stumbling blocks (as even though you want to learn every bit of the language, there is still a few hurdles you must jump that may not be easy for you to overcome (but with determination, you can do anything)), along the way.

    Either way, for the writer of this webpage, I do not admonish his work, in fact I promote it, it is a very factual site and I recommend those willing to learn a language to look into a site. You are an excelent writer, and I promote this site.

    Also: I am sorry if I have angered anyone in anyway, I did not mean too. I am sorry.

  • Faizaan Datoo

    Im curious to know what category Swahili would be in, for a native English speaker.