How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?

Instructor: Jessica Keys
Whether it's for business, school or personal enrichment, you can count on putting in a lot of work to become proficient in another language. But how long will it take? Find out the answer to this question and more with this article.

How Much Time Does it Take to Learn a New Language?

First of all, it's important to understand that the answer to this question is dependent on a lot of factors! Let's take a look at a few.

Motivation

For better or for worse, your study habits--as well as your attitude--will have an impact on the time it will take you to learn a language. Think about why you are learning the language. What drew you to it? Are you planning to visit another country? Communicating with friends and family? Is it a language used often in your field of study? Is it for business reasons? It could even be because you are just curious, or you like the challenge.

The important thing is that it means something to you on some level, so you have a source of motivation. Understandably, it may be difficult to find motivation if the language is a school requirement and not something you would choose for yourself. However, the more motivation you have, the more you will want to study and immerse yourself in the language and its culture, and the faster you will learn.

What About Age?

Think back to when you were younger and first learning how to read and write in your native language; did you struggle, or did you pick it up right away? You may remember your classmates learning at different rates as well. Perhaps some students were very good readers while others needed a little more help. As an older student studying a new language, you may still see similar learning differences among your classmates, or you may find that certain areas are easier than others for you (for example, you're a great reader, but your listening skills always seem to need extra practice).

These individual differences may also have an impact on how long it takes you to learn a language. However, it is not true that you cannot become proficient in a new language after you become an adult! In fact, research has shown that the fully-developed adult brain is more capable of understanding the subtle aspects of grammar, as well as structure and vocabulary.

As an adult learner, you also have an advantage in that you know which teaching styles work best for you. Therefore, the speed at which you learn a language will depend on finding a course that suits the way you learn, as well as your professional or personal needs.

The Language Itself

Finally, some languages are considered more difficult than other languages; they require more time to attain proficiency. For English speakers, the Foreign Services Institute (FSI) has grouped some of the more common languages, ranking them according to difficulty and the average amount of study it takes to achieve proficiency:

  • Category I languages are the most similar to English. It would take about 575-600 hours of study for a totally new learner to achieve general proficiency in these languages.
  • Category II languages are still somewhat similar to English, but have more differences than would a Category I language. These will require more study time, around 750 to 900 hours.
  • Category III languages are quite different from English. Expect to put in at least 1100 hours of study.
  • Category IV languages are considered to be the most difficult. As such, the estimated time it would take to become proficient is double that of the last category: 2200 hours.

For example, here are the classifications of some languages:

Category I Afrikaans, Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish
Category II German, Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili
Category III Armenian, Bengali, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Lao, Persian, Polish, Russian, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese, Zulu
Category IV Arabic, Cantonese, Korean, Mandarin, Japanese

Source: U.S. Department of State, School of Language Studies

Note that the hours of study are based on a schedule of twenty hours of language study per week. Also, these estimations correspond to professional proficiency in that language. Consider your own goals. If you want to learn just enough to be able to have a friendly conversation or travel abroad for pleasure, you will probably not need to study as long as someone who is training to become a diplomat!

Also, this chart applies to English speakers. But for those learning how to speak English, the time it takes to achieve proficiency will vary based on similar factors, including the student's native language and educational background. To learn the basics of the English language, it can take 500-1,000 hours of study for a literate adult. Proficiency can take up to seven years.

In short, the amount of time it takes to learn a language depends on so many different factors; there can be no one definitive answer. However, it is safe to say that in all cases, learning a language takes a lot of hard work, dedication and patience.

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