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How Long Does It Take To Learn A New Language? (Simple Guide)

Updated: 05. Dec, 2022

Learning a new language is an exciting experience for most people. Imagine being able to say all you can now, but in another person’s language. Adding new languages to your vocabulary opens a new world where you can communicate with other people without a communication barrier. However, the question on everyone’s mind is, ‘how long does it take to learn a new language?’

The simple way to answer the question is to say that it depends. The time frame for learning any language depends on several factors. It could take a few months or a couple of years to learn to speak, read, and write in a new language. For example, a dedicated student learning a ‘category 1’ language from a teacher can achieve fluency within five months with the proper learning methods.

In this article, we explore all the facts and provide you with enough information for you to be able to estimate by yourself how long it could take to learn a new language.

Factors That Determine How Long You Need to Learn a New Language

As we mentioned earlier, multiple factors can influence the timeframe for learning a new language. Some of these factors include:

The Language You’re Interested In

One of the top factors that affect the duration of learning a new language is the language itself. According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), there are five types of languages based on complexity and the total study time necessary. This means that if you dedicate about 40 hours a week to practicing a new language, how much you’d learn partly depends on its structure (alphabet, grammar, pronunciation, and rhythm).

The language categories according to the FSI are:

  • Category 1: Category 1 languages include those that are very similar or closely related to English. This includes French, Italian, and Spanish. Learning Category 1 languages could take up to 600 hours or six months to reach professional proficiency.
  • Category 2: These are slightly more complex languages like German and Estonian. These will take up to 2 months or 750 hours to attain a level of General Professional Proficiency.
  • Category 3: These languages are more complex than Category 1 & 2, and require up to 900 hours or nine months to become proficient. Examples of Category 3 languages include Indonesian and Swahili.
  • Category 4: This is the most extensive category. Languages that are in this category are categorized as ‘hard languages.’ Category 4 languages are mainly those found in Asia, such as Russian, Hindi, Tamil, Thai, Vietnamese, Turkish, etc. It takes around 44 weeks or 1100 class hours to reach  General Professional Proficiency.
  • Category 5: These are the most difficult languages you could learn. Category 5 languages include Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic. You will need 88 weeks to attain a proficient level.

Motivation and Mindset

Learning a new language isn’t always easy. It could be more technical and complex than you anticipated. Also, it is common to find yourself frustrated trying to get through a lesson; you could get discouraged or bored. However, success in learning a new language requires you to anticipate low moments and work your way through them by staying committed.

You’ll need to develop a mindset that encourages growth and go all-in with your lessons, looking forward to when you finally grasp the language. It is essential to have a laser focus on your goals and maintain your positivity because, as they say, practice makes perfect.

Whether you have foreign language anxiety (xenoglossophobia) or not, learning even the most essential languages can push you to your limits. However, the more you can ‘hold your ground’ during tough lessons, the more complicated topics will become manageable.

As we mentioned, different languages require different amounts of learning hours for proficiency. However, the time needed could increase if you’re regularly distracted, confused, or frustrated.

Your Language Background

This is another crucial factor that affects how fast you can learn a new language efficiently. You can quickly learn or identify closely related languages and varying dialects with mutual intelligibility. This means that if you spend a considerable amount of time learning Hindi, for example, it will be easier, and it will require a shorter time to learn closely related languages like Urdu and Gujarati.

Furthermore, some Germanic, Romance, and Slavic languages have strong mutual intelligibility. Different speakers don’t even need to change their language to strike up a conversation.

However, you should also be aware of asymmetrical intelligibility. This means that while it may be easier for a group of people to learn a specific language, the language speakers may find it hard to learn the group’s language. For example, it may be a lot faster for Italian and Portuguese speakers to understand Spanish than for Spanish speakers to learn and understand Italian or Portuguese.

Your familiarity with foreign languages and exposure to a language you’re interested in within your social circle can influence the time required to learn a language.

Your Desired Proficiency

Before learning a new language, it is crucial to set a target for yourself to get started with. For example, how fluent or proficient do you want to be? Are you just trying to learn Spanish to engage in conversations, or are you learning because you want to travel abroad?

Motivation, desire, and goals are different for everyone learning languages. You need to know what you want so you can calculate how much time you’d need to get there.

If you’re confused about how to measure your desired proficiency, here are three scales you can use to measure yourself:

  • The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR): This scale comprises five different levels of proficiency. You can start at level 1, which is elementary proficiency, or set your gaze on native or bilingual proficiency at level 5.
  • The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Languages: CEFR consists of three levels of language proficiency: A (Basic User), B (Independent User), and C (Proficient User).
  • The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL): The council divides its guidelines into five primary levels: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished.

As long as you want to learn a new language, always focus on your end target. If your goal is to be able to communicate while on a trip abroad, basic grammar and vocabulary will suffice. 

However, advanced vocabulary skills and grammar lessons will be necessary if you want to master the language well enough to translate or teach. Whatever your plans may be, be sure to have the right expectations so that you’ll be able to reach your goals more conveniently and faster.

Learning Process (Teachers, Techniques, and Tools)

The approach you take to learning a new language is fundamental. For example, being self-taught or learning from a teacher can make all the difference. If both students practice a language for about 900 hours, the second student is more likely to become more proficient.

This is because with guidance comes knowledgeable instruction and constructive feedback. These will help a student develop a level of proficiency quickly. In addition, such a student will learn and use strategies, exercises, and other helpful information to make the mind more easily adopt the new language. Also, encouragement, discipline, and mentorship are things a student can benefit from a teacher, while the self-taught learner won’t.

However, you must have either approach at least. Nonetheless, if you must learn a new language, we recommend getting some assistance rather than trying to do it all by yourself. Whether in a group class or one-on-one, a good language teacher can make all the difference in learning a language fast. Additionally, familiarizing yourself with helpful learning tools such as language apps, books, and games can speed up the process.

Thankfully, there are outstanding online applications you can use, such as Babbel, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Busuu. These tools offer users the opportunity to learn various new languages. It combines games, visual and audio aids, and other techniques to make the learning process a lot more fun and relaxed. Leading experts in the field develop these apps, so you can rest assured that you’re in good hands.

Lastly, other learning strategies could come in handy such as:

  • Mnemonic devices
  • Diglot Weave Technique
  • Brain Soaking
  • Spaced Repetition Memory System
  • Brain Soaking
  • Language Cognates

The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) or FSI Scale

According to the FSI, you can score language fluency on the following scale:

Elementary Proficiency

This is the most basic level of learning languages. You have just a basic grasp of your desired language at this level. This means that you are familiar with the simple words, answer basic questions, and communicate your needs politely. Anyone at this level can comfortably travel to where the language is spoken with little or no challenges at all.

In addition, elementary proficiency means you have a limited vocabulary and can write simple short sentences with few grammar mistakes. At this point, you’ll be more comfortable engaging in conversations that allow you to use the phrases you have learned.

Limited Working Proficiency

You have enough language skills to communicate in various social interactions at this level. For example, it will be easier to introduce yourself and chat about different topics. Although this satisfies daily social demands, one may still need some assistance.

Minimum Professional Proficiency

It is usually at this level that most people try to answer the question, ‘how long does it take to learn a new language?’. At this level, you should be able to speak the language with a broader vocabulary and structural accuracy in formal and informal scenarios.

Additionally, you understand well enough for a regular speech rate, and you rarely need to look up a word to know its meaning.

Full Professional Proficiency

At level four, you should be able to speak the language fluently without grammar errors in all kinds of social, personal, or professional interactions. At this point, it is safe to say that you are fluent in the new language.

However, in the midst of native speakers, you are likely to stand out because of pronunciation and grammatical errors. Also, if you’re confident enough, you could even translate the new language informally.

Native or Bilingual Proficiency

This is the highest level attainable. Once you qualify for this level, it means that your grasp of the language is on the same level as an educated native speaker. At this level, you can congratulate yourself and boldly refer to yourself as a native speaker of the language.

To achieve native or bilingual proficiency, your grasp of the language is advanced enough to fully comprehend all its features, such as expressive vocabulary, colloquialisms, dialects, and cultural references.

Final Remarks

Learning a new language comes in handy on countless occasions, from leisure travelers to professional careers. However, no matter the language you are interested in learning, it is normal to speculate or inquire about how long it would take to become proficient.

There’s no guaranteed time for learning languages, because of some of the factors that we have highlighted in this article. However, it is vital that you just start. You can start by setting your goals for the level of proficiency you’d like to achieve and then pick a learning method that works best for you. 

We recommend language apps like Babbel, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Busuu because they have simplified the learning process significantly. With the right mindset and tools, you can learn the new language you’re interested in faster than you anticipated.

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