How long does it take to learn a language?
Wow, what a stonker!
This is a question that we get asked on an almost daily basis. The frustrating thing is that it’s virtually impossible, if not completely impossible to answer.
At least without quite a few big assumptions.
The closest we can get is to give out some general guidelines in terms of how many hours of private lessons will be needed to reach X level in the chosen language.
To be honest though, even this isn’t really good enough.
There are so many factors to take into account when answering this question. In this post I’m going to attempt to at least clarify how we can come to some kind of acceptable answer to this question.
And how you can find out the answer to this burning question for yourself!
Getting clear on when you’ve ‘learned’ the language
How do you actually know when you’ve learned the language?
Well let’s keep things really simple so we can move on to the next part, where we can hopefully get further clarity on the ever elusive answer to this question.
For this we need a good rule of thumb.
Let’s use the 80-20 rule to help us here.
Over 80% of people who ask us this question, either when emailing their enquiry or on a phone call fall into the following category.
They are native-English speaking adults or have learned English to a high degree of competence (at least B2 level – more on this later).
We’ve thoroughly debunked the myth that children are better at learning languages in a previous post. So for the moment, let’s just assume an average adult learner and no ‘I’m too old‘ excuses going on.
They have either never had any interaction with the target language in the past and would class themselves as complete beginners or they have had limited experience learning the language in the past, either through school, previous learning efforts or sporadic trips abroad.
They consider ‘learning’ the language to mean that they can hold a conversation about general topics with a native-speaker in their target language without too much trouble.
If you fall into this category, great.
You’re not alone!
If not, this will still be useful — stick with me.
So I’m going to be quite forward here and suggest that the vast majority of people reading this will be native or high-level English speakers.
Have little or no experience in their target language.
And would judge success to mean that they can converse about general topics with a native-speaker of their chosen language without too much trouble.
This is exactly how I would judge success as well.
Among the language learning community, most of us believe that actually speaking at a native level in another language is neither practical, nor is it worthwhile.
To speak to a native level in a language we’d be talking about C2 level according to the CEF levels.
It’s certainly possible, however the level of time and money you’d need to invest in this far outweighs the benefits in most situations.
I personally have learnt French and Spanish to C1 level, as well as Polish and Russian to B2 level and can tell you that to go up just 1 level from B2 to C1 is around about the same level of effort as going right from beginner to intermediate.
To put it another way, the higher you go, the more effort you need to make to get to the next level.
And there’s not much point. You can have a conversation at B2 level just as well as you can at C1 level.
So pretty much any language learning expert you speak to will tell you the same thing.
“Aim for B2 (upper-intermediate) level in your chosen language.”
This is a fantastic level to be at.
You’ll have learnt pretty much all the most common vocabulary and grammar.
You’ll be able to express yourself fairly easily and fluently (with practice!).
And will be able to follow conversations, films, listening and reading material in the target language without too much trouble.
Now that’s what I call success!
Factors affecting how long it will take you to get to B2 level
Now this is where it is more difficult to come up with a one-size-fits-all approach. There are various internal and external factors which affect the speed at which you’ll be able to learn your chosen language.
There are probably a few others not listed below but the below list should cover at least 80% of situations and learners.
Thank goodness for the 80-20 rule!
External factors affecting speed of learning
- The time you have available daily / weekly to spend on language learning
- How you’re learning
- Learning style
- Learning methods
Internal factors affecting speed of learning
- Your own native language
- Similarity between your own native language and your chosen target language
- Prior linguistic experience
- Experience learning target language
- Experience learning languages in general
- The level you want to reach (we’ve answered that one!)
- Motivation and attitude
- Natural ability
- Accountability (I’ll not cover this but it’s useful to have a ‘buddy’ to keep you on track)
OK so now what?
So for our hypothetical enquirer, we’ve defined what success means (B2 level in the language).
Now as we’re experts in 1:1 language training, let’s just assume our enquirer has decided that they want to enrol on a course of lessons with one of our trainers.
Let’s also assume that the learner is fairly motivated to learn with a good attitude towards language learning and all the ups and downs that come with it.
Finally, we’ll assume that this person is busy and only has time to focus on their learning during lessons, and not outside of lessons. Hint – Don’t be this person, your progress will be a lot slower!
We’ve got tonnes and tonnes of data on students who have been through our private training programs. Trainers log progress on a lesson by lesson basis mapped to CEF levels via our internal systems. Why keep all this data to ourselves?
If we can share it hopefully someone will find it useful!
Over 10 years’ worth of data on 1:1 language lessons has been crunched — hundreds of students, thousands of teaching hours. And this is what we’ve come up with.
How long will it take to learn your chosen language?
Let’s now assume that you take 2 hours per week of private lessons. Not much, but definitely doable for most people.
How many weeks will it take you to get to our magic B2 level?
So a kind of hacky answer to the question is it will take you around 2 and a half years to learn English and the ‘easy to learn’ languages.
Assuming only 2 hours per week on private lessons.
Hacky because there are so many assumptions you will have to add or remove hours and weeks from this table to fit your own personal situation.
Get creative and use this as inspiration!
The German language contains a number of distinct grammatical concepts that augment the difficulty level slightly when compared to the ‘easy to learn’ languages.
Expect around 3 years to learn German if you can only invest 2 hours per week.
It’s 3 and a bit years to ‘learn’ Russian.
Mandarin, Arabic and Japanese are classed as ‘very difficult’ languages for English speakers to learn due to the lack of similarity between the languages.
Expect over 3 and a half years to get to the coveted B2 level in these. (I know these languages don’t use the CEF level scale but for the sake of comparison it still works very well – let’s not get too technical!)
These are the most popular languages, and of course we have to assume an awful lot of stuff (as seen earlier in the post). Nevertheless, this gives a fairly good idea about the kind of time investment you’d need to make if you take private lessons.
Can you speed this up?
Yes, you can. Now I am not going to push any kind of language learning method over another, and of course we are biased as we offer 1:1 training, but all language learning experts agree.
Private training destroys all other methods of language learning hands down in terms of efficiency and speed of learning.
Except perhaps total immersion in the country where the target language is spoken.
There are also variants of the total immersion idea which work very well and can keep up with the effectiveness of private training.
That said, many people neither have the financial resources nor the desire to take 1:1 lessons, which is fine.
You will need to add more hours onto these totals if using other methods, group lessons for example.
If you are only learning by yourself (e.g. using an app, textbooks, watching and listening to content in the target language etc.) you will need to add on even more time.
These times should give you a ballpark figure you can work from so at least you now have some idea.
One of the easiest tips we give our learners is to spend at least the same amount of time learning outside of lessons as you do in lessons. This one trick can shave weeks, even months of your task.
If you’re lucky enough to not be starting from beginner level this may also speed things up. Or if your language is a heritage language – perhaps your relatives speak the language and you already understand a lot this may cut the curve.
Finally, book a trip to the country where you language is spoken. Not only will this focus your mind so the learning is relevant but also once you’re there you’ll progress immensely if given the right situations.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
As with everything in life that is worth anything. You have to work for it.
Just remember to enjoy the process and keep putting one foot in front of the other. The time will pass anyway.
You are the architect of your own destiny.
You’ll need to put the time in.
And you will get there.
Hopefully this post has given you a (really) rough guide on how long it will take you to learn your chosen language.
Best of luck!
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Founder of the UK Language Project and avid language learner.
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