How long should it take to learn a language?

Language learning depends mostly on three factors, the attitude of the learner, the time available, and learner’s attentiveness to the language. If we assume a positive attitude on the part of the learner, and a reasonable and growing attentiveness to the language, and even a method that cultivates the learner’s attentiveness, how much time?

FSI, the US Foreign Service Institute, divides languages into groups of difficulty for?? speakers of English:

  • Group 1: French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili
  • Group 2: Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu
  • Group 3: Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Lao, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese
  • Group 4: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

FSI has 5 levels of proficiency:

  1. Elementary proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
  2. Limited working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
  3. Minimum professional proficiency. The person can speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.
  4. Full professional proficiency. The person uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.
  5. Native or bilingual proficiency. The person has speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.

On this scale, I would call 2 above basic conversational fluency.

FSI research indicates that it takes 480 hours to reach basic fluency in group 1 languages, and 720 hours for group 2-4 languages.

If we are able to put in 10 hours a day, then basic fluency in the easy languages should take 48 days, and for difficult languages?? 72 days. Accounting for days off, this equates to two months or three months time. If you?? only put in 5 hours a day, it will take twice as long.

Is ten hours a day reasonable? It could be. Here is a sample day.

8-12: Alternate listening, reading and vocabulary review using LingQ, Anki or some other system.
12-2: rest, exercise, lunch, while listening to the language.
2-3: grammar review
3-4: write
4-5: talk via skype or with locals if in the country
5-7: rest
7-10: relaxation in the language, movies, songs, or going out with friends in the language. depending on availability.

To some extent the language needs time to gestate and often things we study today do not click in for months. On the other hand intensity has its own benefits. I have no doubt that someone following this intense program, or something similar, would achieve basic conversational fluency in 2 months for easy languages, and 3 months for difficult languages.

To go from level 2 to level 4, or full professional fluency would take quite a bit longer, perhaps twice as long. This reminds me that I wrote something on this a few years ago. If I find it I will post it.

One thought on “How long should it take to learn a language?

  1. I think, like Steve has noted on other occasions, that the brain will remember what it will and we do not always know how it will come together and I think that is the eternal principle of ‘study by faith’ (dc 88.118). If we have doubt we can’t see the way; rather, if we have Faith it see ways to DO things and bring things together. Doubt will see the darkest night; yet, faith sees the day! Attitude determines altitude and HOW HIGH we will fly versus if we do things out of ‘fear’ or ‘duty’ then we have a lower natural intensity to grasp when we work against the grain versus actually the higher of human aspirations re: love for what we do and so love makes the world go round for us in many more ways than just amorous btwn the genders it has the magic elixir that lights up all we put our hand to versus the drudgery or despair that quells the giant within as a result of the crunch of everyday living. I think inspiration is highly under estimated and yet that is what lights Olympic champions on fire to rise above their natural abilities!

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