How long does it take to learn a language?
The book "How To Speak Any Language Fluently" by Alex Rawlings deals with this question, among plenty of other things. It comes short in giving an exact answer to how long language learning takes, because, well, there isn't one. But among all the language-learning books out there, it's one of the best!
This is a question language learners often ask themselves. And the answer is always the same:
But what does it depend on exactly? And is it possible to calculate how long it'll take an individual to reach fluency in a foreign language?
How long it takes to learn a language is something that depends on the language itself, the level that the student is aiming for, his or her past experience, how motivated the student is, how consistently he or she studies and how much work is put in.
These are all very variable factors, and it can be difficult to pinpoint how big a role each of them play. Add to that that all language students are different and that no size fits all.
But with all that being said - below you'll find my Study Time Calculator. It's not perfect and the result might not be the truth for you...
But it's an estimate that you may or may not take into consideration when planning out your studies. While the calculation could be off, it gives you a way of reconsidering your goals. Are they realistic? And what will I have to to to reach my goals if my initial plan doesn't hold water?
Click the question marks next to each title to read how the calculation is done.
How Long Do Individual Languages Take To Learn?
How long does it take to learn a language? Why does Russian take longer than French? And what sets Korean apart as a language that takes extremely long to master?
In the above calculator, I have used the study-time estimations made by the FSI. The Foreign Service Institute is the American government institution that teaches foreign languages to US diplomats going overseas.
They've grouped the languages that they teach into different categories, from "easy" languages that take around 600 hours for an average English-speaking student to master, to "difficult" languages that take 2200 hours.
FSI's estimates obviously only apply in very specific cases. They're aimed at English speakers, students who take their intensive classroom course, and they're aiming for a very high level of fluency. And the results vary even for the FSI!
So in other words: You can't just take FSI's numbers and apply them to your own situation. A lot of things come into play, which is what I try to address with the other factors in the calculator.
So, as mentioned, FSI's numbers apply for English speakers who learn foreign languages. This means that the estimates are different if your native language is something else than English. (And if that's the case, the calculator doesn't really work for you.. Sorry!)
Then there's the fact that FSI teaches in an intensive classroom setting. What this means is that the students are mentored through their learning process, constantly shouldered by a competent teacher who adapts his or her teaching style to the student. It also means that the student is studying something like 6-8 hours a day.
While I'm no fan of classroom learning, FSI's course is beyond a doubt very efficient!
Finally there's the level. FSI aims for "High Professional Working Proficiency" which is a very high level of fluency in a language (The equivalent of C1). Aiming for less might significantly lower the time it takes to learn a language.
Because of all of this, I have decided to use FSI's numbers as the "almost ideal" scenario: If you're aiming for the C1 level, you're a moderately experienced language learner, you're moderately motivated and you study every day, FSI's numbers should apply...
More or less.
How Does The Level You Aim For Determine How Long It Takes To Learn A Language?
The language level that you're aiming for obviously plays a role in calculating how long it'll take you to reach your goal.
In the calculator, I've considered the FSI estimates as the reference number for reaching the C1 level. C1 is the advanced fluency level in the CEFRL-ratings. (That's the "Common European Framework Of Reference For Languages")
Each language level is, in turn based on an average of the study-time that different educational bodies judge that the different levels take to archive.
For each level, these proportions of the reference hours are taken into consideration:
- C2 takes 100%
- C1 takes 78%
- B2 takes 54%
- B1 takes 34%
- A2 takes 16%
- A1 takes 7%
How Does Your Previous Experience Influence How Efficiently You Can Learn A Language?
Well, let me just start by saying: This is not an exact science!
And far from it! There doesn't really exist a good way to measure how past experiences impact language learning, so the numbers in the calculator above are based on my own best guesses!
If you don't care for my guesswork, leave the drop-down box as it is, and experience won't be taken into consideration.
There is, however, no doubt that both linguistic and more general academic experience influences the time it'll take a student to master a foreign language.
For one thing, if you're used to studying, you know your learning style well, and you know exactly how to approach teaching yourself a foreign language, you'll be well ahead. If you know a closely related language to the one you're studying, even more so.
Even if you've got just a little experience with learning a language that even might be unrelated to the one you're studying now, it'll be a small advantage. Any experience with language learning makes for a short-cut because it allows the student to be aware of what actually makes a language.
Other ways of saying things, grammar concepts and vocabulary that we don't have equivalents to in English, although still foreign, won't be a complete mystery.
Finally, there's the question of other kinds of experience. Even if you have never had any experience with foreign languages, being used to take notes, memorizing information and being organized and disciplined with your studies - these things will all help you learn a language faster.
How these factors impact the time it'll take a student to learn a language is highly subjective, but if you want to include this variable in the calculation, these are the options and how (I've decided) that they impact the time it takes to learn the language.
- Inexperienced with studying in general (60% longer)
- Inexperienced with language learning (40% longer)
- Knowledge of more than one language (20% longer)
- Self-taught more one or more language to fluency (No change)
- Seasoned polyglot (20% faster)
How Does Your Motivation Impact How Long It Takes To Learn A Language?
The role that motivation plays in calculating the time it takes to learn a language is also not an exact science...
There's no doubt, however, that someone who is not motivated will advance slower than someone who is highly motivated.
And this isn't just because someone who is not motivated will study less than someone who is motivated, but because the quality of the studies as well as the effect it has on language acquisition will improve when you're motivated.
This is something we can probably all agree on.
But how much does it impact the study time?
As it was the case with experience, when it comes to the influence of motivation, you'll have to make due with my best guesses (or you can leave the drop-down box in order to not having motivation play a role in the calculation).
And while it's clear that being highly motivated will make for a shorter time to reach your end goal, lacking motivation to a high degree might make it take significantly longer, or you might actually never get there.
This is why I haven't included an option for a "very demotivated student". This simply doesn't make sense. If you're very demotivated, you'll probably never learn the language to fluency, and if you do, it's hard to calculate whether it be in 3, 5 or 20 times as many years as someone who's reasonably motivated. (Go read my article about motivation in language learning also).
This is how the different options influence the final number:
- Low motivation (50% longer)
- Moderately motivated (25% longer)
- Highly motivated (No change)
- Very highly motivated (15% faster)
While these options need to be taken with a grain of salt, you also need to think about them realistically in the long term. While you may be highly motivated while setting out studying a new foreign language, chances are that you'll experience ups and downs throughout the months and years that it takes to reach fluency.
How Does Your Consistency Influence The Time It Takes To Learn A Language?
Consistency and following a study routine diligently is very important when learning a new language. An obvious reason is, that if you skip a day here and there, you'll postpone the missing study sessions to a later time, which sends the reaching of your end goal further into the future.
More importantly, however, is the idea of repetition and "freshness" in regards to the new information you're learning.
Studying daily (or several times a day) keeps your brain soaked in a foreign language environment. You never really get to distance yourself from the language and your brain keeps the floodgates open for receiving and implementing new information in that language.
This relates to the subject of the forgetting curve, which is a model that tries to predict how long you can remember a new piece of information before needing it refreshed, gradually increasing the interval for each time it is revised.
Someone who studies languages only one time per week will switch his or her brain to "off mode" as soon as the book is put aside. A whole week will pass without touching the new sprouts of information, and once the next study session comes along, the things learned previously will need a lot of nurturing to get back to life.
This means that a significant portion of your study sessions will be spent revising and getting back up to speed rather than continuing adding new information to the mix.
So studying an hour a day, 7 days of the week is not the same as studying one time per week for 7 hours. It is vastly more efficient to study a little every day (or even several times per day) than doing a lot now and then.
What's even worse than having long pauses in between your study sessions is totally going on a hiatus for an extended period before coming back to pick up your studies.
The longer this hiatus is, the worse off you'll be. Many language students will be able to recognize this. Due to various reasons or life getting in the way, you abandon your study routine for weeks or even months.
Once you decide to pick your studies back up, you'll notice that while you remember some things, other things will need a lot of work to get back to the state in which they were before.
So what are the options in the calculator? Like many of the other factors, it is difficult to say anything precise about consistency, because it depends on so many things.
As with the previous factors, feel free to leave the drop-down box blank if you don't want my guesstimates to influence your calculation.
Otherwise, here are the options based on my experience:
- 2-3 Consistent daily study sessions (10% faster)
- 1 Consistent daily study session (No change)
- 3-5 Consistent weekly study sessions (10% longer)
- 1 Consistent weekly study session (30% longer)
I've decided to not include an option for "frequent longer breaks" or "hiatuses" in your learning process. The reason is, that while the exact effect of consistency is difficult to estimate, for longer breaks and hiatuses, it's impossible.
If you have a tendency to only study once in a while, if life gets in the way and you put your learning process on hold for weeks or months, or if you give up, only to come back later and give language learning another go?
This could double, triple or multiply the total study time ten-fold. Or you might never reach your goals, if you don't start becoming more or less consistent.
How Does Your Daily Study Time Influence The Time It Takes To Learn A Language?
Finally, how does the amount of time that you spend studying the language daily influence the total time needed to reach your goals?
One could argue that this is simply a question of dividing the total number of hours by the daily amount of hours put in, in order to get a total number of days needed to reach the end goal.
I do, however think that there is more to it than that. If you only put in very little time per day, you'll have a hard time both reviewing previously learned content and covering new ground, which will result in the total amount of hours being higher.
On the other hand, if you study for many hours each day, you may not be able to keep studying as efficiently as you'd like. Eventually, your mind will wander, you'll loose focus and your progress will be hindered slightly.
As mentioned earlier, the numbers from FSI are based on an intensive classroom situation where the student spends 6-8 hours per day studying.
The FSI does this because their students need quick results, and it's impractical for a language program to stretch out over several years of studying 1-3 hours per day.
I do, however think that there is a certain "Goldylock-zone" where the amount of daily study time is just right.
I'd say that this is between 45 minutes and 1½ hours per day.
If you study less than 45 minutes per day, the total amount of time you'll need to put in will be higher, and if you study for more than 1½ hours a day, the total amount of time will also be higher.
So the options in the calculator look like this: (Keep in mind that they're bases on FSI's intensive courses meaning that the 6 daily study hours option is unchanged, because that's the reference number).
- 10 minutes per day (25% longer)
- 15 minutes per day (15% longer)
- 30 minutes per day (10% faster)
- 45 minutes per day (30% faster)
- 1 hour per day (30% faster)
- 1½ hours per day (30% faster)
- 2 hours per day (20% faster)
- 3 hours per day (10% faster)
- 4 hours per day (5% faster)
- 5 hours per day (2.5% faster)
- 6 hours per day (No change)
- 7 hours per day (2.5% longer)
- 8 hours per day (5% longer)
And That's It
This is my study-time calculator for language learning. I hope you you've found it useful. I am looking for ways to improve it. This could be based on better reference numbers, studies related to the impact of motivation, experience, consistency, daily study time or other factors.
If you have any feedback, suggestions or input, please don't hesitate to write a comment or send me a message through my contact page.