How Long Should It Take to Learn a Language?

by Susan Saurel

Is there a timeframe that works for everyone? Imagine you're about to move in Germany. You're going in four months, and you have no foundation of the German language. You'll be learning it for scratch. Will you be able to become fluent in so little time?

It depends. It seems like that's a universal answer to any question that's a bit more challenging to answer. Let's avoid it today.

Of course it depends on your commitment and talent for learning languages. However, we'll look at the facts, we'll check research studies, and we'll try to find the answer.

What Does the Research Say?

The first factor that determines the length of learning is the difficulty of the language you tackle. The difficulty is determined by the close or distant relation to the foreign language to your native language.

If you're a native English speaker trying to learn Dutch, you'll be faster than someone who natively speaks Arabic. The Foreign Service Institute classified languages in five levels of difficulty, based on their relation to the English language. The Institute also estimated the number of hours it would take to learn one of these languages. They give us an exact period of time needed to reach Speaking 3 and Reading 3 level for these languages:

Does this answer our question?

We're not quite there yet.

The Association of the United States Army has its own classification. It has four categories of languages, and it estimates that it takes a bit longer to master the languages in each of them:

The Defense Language Institute focuses on getting the learners to level 2 in overall proficiency, on a scale from 1 to 5. So we're not getting quite fluent in such a short time.

As for the English Language, the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) is the most commonly used system for estimating the needed time of learning. According to this system, the learner needs 200 hours of lessons to reach level C1 Advanced (on the assumption that they started training at level B2). But if they started from zero, it would take them 800 hours to get to that level. The highest level of proficiency (C2 Proficiency) takes 1,000 - 1,200 hours on average.

Can We Fully Rely on These Numbers?

These are estimations for average learners, trained under supervision.

The CEFR training, in particular, is very structured. The learners get many hours of lessons, and they are supervised throughout the process of preparation.

When you're learning at your own pace, things are different.

A classroom hour differs from an hour of self-study. It has the components of lecturing, discipline, and feedback. Learners who take on this journey without that structure may achieve even greater levels of discipline. But in most cases, they tend to procrastinate and they can't focus well enough.

According to the Duolingo Effectiveness Study from 2012, it takes 26-49 hours of study for a person with no knowledge of Spanish to cover the first semester of Spanish studies at college. This is if they use Duolingo. At college, it would take 48-65 hours of classes, plus a significant investment in self-study to reach the same level. Busuu and Babbel are even more effective at achieving results.

This brings us to the conclusion that self-paced learning may be more effective than structured classes.

Sure; it requires a lot of time. To learn for 25 hours a week, you'd have to neglect some other responsibilities and pleasures. You'll spend less time on other hobbies. If you're a student, you might need to hire the best essay writing service Reddit, so you'll make time for learning.

In reality, it's hard to devote 25 hours per week to learning. That's almost 4 hours per day (including weekends). Can you stay in a focused mode for four hours without interruptions when you're covering complex grammar lectures? It's not always possible. For most of us, 10-15 hours per week is a more realistic commitment. That would take us to 60 weeks to learn a language from Category 1 according to the estimations of the Foreign Service Institute.

Make a Plan Based on the Hourly Estimations

When you're looking at the estimations mentioned above, don't focus on the weekly estimation. It may trick you into believing that you can quickly master a language, when that's not realistically possible.

The hourly estimations are better. However, you should keep in mind that these are average estimations, which the researchers made after observing a group of learners who studied under a structured program. Your case may be different.

How to Learn a Foreign Language at a Faster Pace

The speed of mastering a foreign language depends on a few factors:

You Do You!

When you're about to start learning a new language, it's important to have a plan.

Your New Year's resolution can include a realistic goal: become fluent in German by 2021. If you look at the estimations on the needed hours of study, you can plan your year around learning German ... or any other language for that matter.

However, you shouldn't take those numbers too seriously.

It might take longer for you to get fluent. That shouldn't disappoint you. Continue making the commitment. You know what? If you're a committed learner, you may surprise yourself by beating the average estimations.

Take as much time as you need. Not giving up is the most important goal to set.


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