How long does it take to learn a language?

how-long-to-learn-a-language

A question that gets asked time and time again in every language group I belong to is “How long does it take to become fluent?”. There is no short answer to this one. The true answer is that it depends on the person, their level of commitment and time available.

This answer is not normally received well. Most people want to know that if you study for x amount of time you will achieve fluency.

For those who want a more definitive answer, the Foreign Services Institute (FSI) provides a rough guide to how long each language takes. This is just the opinion of one organization, is based on difficulty for native English speakers and well, everyone is different so don’t be put off if you want to learn one of the more “difficult” ones.

The list is not exhaustive but covers a lot of the main languages.

So how long will it take to learn?

The languages are split into 4 levels and are based on classroom learning of 5 hours a day, 5 days a week:

Category I : 24 weeks (600 hours)
Languages closely related to English.

Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish

Category II : 36 weeks (900 hours)
Languages that take a little longer to master than Category I languages.

German, Indonesian, Malay, Swahili

Category III: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.

Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Gujarati, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Kazakh, Khmer, Kurdish, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, Tagalog, Tajiki, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese

Category IV: 88 weeks (2200 hours)
Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.

Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

Now, most of those look like a looooong time and, lets face it, if language learning was quick and easy then we would all know two or three languages at least. Most of us will probably do an hour a day at most and even that takes a level of commitment longer term. It’s important to note though that the FSI is aiming for fluency. I like to think in terms of “conversation fluency” which is somewhere around the B2 level. Fluency is another word that is thrown around a lot and deserves a post all of it’s own so don’t worry about that for now.

Use the table as a guide, for example, as an English speaker it will take almost twice as long to learn Japanese as it will to learn Italian. If you are new to language learning and looking to choose a language, start with a Category I – but only if you are drawn to it. Without commitment, you will never stick to it.

*The FSI is a department of the Federal Government that provides training for employees of the U.S. foreign affairs and their families. Many of their courses are now in the public domain and although these are often dated, they are excellent and best of all, they are free. A quick google search will uncover lots of sites that host the files. I like LiveLingua as it arranges these well and has links to other free resources provided by the Peace Corp and DLI.