Now that most people have extra time at their disposal, some have decided to rekindle their relationship with language learning. The most frequent question I have been asked is this one: “How long does it take to learn a language?

It is not a straight forward answer because it is influenced by several factors: your level of motivation, the amount of time you wish to dedicate in the process of learning, your interest in the language, and most importantly the level you wish to reach.

The US Foreign Service institute (FSI) talk about five levels of proficiency.

Level 1 also called Elementary proficiency.

The learner can satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.

Level 2 also called Limited working proficiency.

The learner can satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.

Level 3 also called minimum professional proficiency.

The learner can speak the language with enough structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.

Level 4 also called Full professional proficiency.

The learner uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.

Level 5 also called Native or bilingual proficiency.

The person has speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.

Here is a table comparing The FSI classification with the CEFR (Common European Frame of Reference) classification that we use.

Comparing the European classification to the Us Foreign Service Institute (FSI/IRL)

There are over 6000 languages and as you already know, they have various levels of difficulty.

The US Foreign Service Institute has classified these languages in categories ranging from 1 to 5 being category 1, the languages they consider easier for a native English speaker to learn and category 5 the hardest languages.

Category 1: languages closely related to English.

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

Category 2: languages similar to English


Category 3: languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences to English

Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili

Category 4: languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.

Albanian,Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, *Estonian, *Finnish, *Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, *Hungarian, Icelandic, Khmer, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, *Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian(Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Polish, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Tagalog, *Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, *Vietnamese, Xhosa, Zulu.

Category 5: languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.

Arabic, Cantonese(Chinese), Mandarin(Chinese), *japanese, Korean

*The languages preceded by asterisks are usually more difficult for native English speakers than other languages in the same category.

They also suggested the specific hours needed to reach fluency for each category.

For category 1 languages, it will take around 575 to 600 hours.

For category 2 languages, it will take 750 hours.

For category 3 it will take 900 hours.

For category 4 it will take 1100 hours.

And for category 5 it will take around 2200 hours.

Learning a language is not a child's play.

As you can see, learning a language is not a child’s play. But if your aim is to just learn the basics to get by during your trips, or be more conversational with your foreign friends, you can achieve it between three to six months if you can spare three to five hours a week to your language study.

How you intend to learn the language also plays an important role in determining how long it will take for you to reach your goal.

It is certainly not the same if you attend a class, or buy an online course, learn with language Apps, or go to the country (when self-isolation is over). They all have their Pros and Cons.

How you intend to learn the language is also important.

Taking a course will give structure to your learning and will offer you accountability. You will be more inclined to stick to your schedule and your program and you will feel obliged to practice the language by doing your homework regularly. On the other side, these courses might be expensive, and are not customised to your needs.

You might decide to learn a language on your own using materials from the internet. They are free, but sometimes you might feel loss facing all the choices that you have and not knowing which materials will truly help you progress.

Certain language Apps are useful, especially at a beginner level, but as you progress you will feel that you are not progressing much with them.

Immersion is by far the best option to shorten the time spent learning.

Immersion would be the best option if you want to learn at a faster pace and if you take good advantage of your time in the target country. It goes without saying that using the language constantly in all diverse situations, is the best way to familiarise yourself with it and it allows the new vocabulary and expressions you learn to easily stick in your memory. Furthermore, you learn the correct accent and all the local expressions used by the native speakers when you are interacting with them. All this happens naturally, and it is free. But, with the worldwide lockdown it is not possible and even before that it is not easy at times to leave work and family to spend some months in a foreign country.

So, to answer to the question “how long does it take to learn a language?” My answer is it depends.

It depends of the level of proficiency that you want to reach. It depends on the language you want to learn. It depends on the time you will allocate to your language study. It depends on the way you intend to learn the language, and most importantly it depends on your level of motivation.

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