Foreign languages are becoming a popular learning interest for many people. In the past few decades, the world has indeed seen a huge rise in travel, growth in international businesses, and a disintegration of borders in the digitally connected world.
This is why Brainscape has developed the most effective spaced repetition technique for learning a language (combined with the world's first complete language curriculum written specifically for spaced repetition), and – more recently – our complete set of online resources for learning any language on your own.
In the course of our research, we've noticed one particular topic that seems to be of interest to many new language learners: how long should it take to learn a language? It's no wonder. When we start learning a language, we're eager to know how long it will take us to be able to smoothly order that sangría on the beaches of Spain.
Let's dive into the question. We've included which languages are the hardest to learn as well!
This is how long it will take to learn a language
The short, unsatisfactory answer is: it depends on a number of factors. Sorry.
There are three main factors that are especially dominant in determining how fast you'll learn a language:
1. The attitude of the learner
Are you the type of person that is disciplined or finds it hard to concentrate? Are you learning a language more accessible to English speakers, like Spanish? Or a less accessible language like Chinese? The attitude you adopt can make a huge difference in how fast you learn the language.
[How to improve your language-learning motivation]
2. The time available
Will you be studying every day? Once a week? Only when you go visit your extended family in the south of France? Naturally, the more often you practice, and the smarter you design your study program, the faster the language learning will go.
3. The learner’s attentiveness to the language
How attentive we are to a language, how much we notice the finer details, greatly influences our learning. Many people aren't equipped to be naturally attentive, so they develop methods or find tools to help them cultivate attentiveness.
The best way to learn a language faster
Brainscape's a web and mobile flashcard app is one of the best tools for learning a foreign language. Our technique is rooted in cognitive science principles like spaced repetition. Brainscape breaks down a language into bite-sized, understandable bits and teaches it incrementally, meaning one new concept at a time. This allows you to really learn the language, rather than just struggle through thousands of new words and concepts that you forget after completing each lesson or "game" in other apps.
If you're an even more motivated self-teaching type, we've even created a toolkit for you to learn a foreign language on your own, detailing various methods and tips. If you pick the right tools, you can double your language learning speed.
What is the hardest language to learn?
Ok, so what 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 would it take then?
Because the time it takes to learn does not only depend on the learner. It also matters which language you're learning. FSI, the US Foreign Service Institute divides languages into groups of difficulty for speakers of English:
- Category I: Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish. These are the easiest languages for English speakers to learn because they are the most similar to English. They also therefore take the least amount of time. The FSI estimates that it will take about 24-30 weeks or 600-750 class hours to become proficient in these languages.
- Category II: German, Hatian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, and Swahili. The FSI estimates these will take about 36 weeks or 900 class hours to become proficient.
- Category III: Azerbaijani, Bulgarian, Czech, Farsi, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Polish, Russian, Somali, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish, Thai, Ukranian, Urdu, and Vienamese. Languages in this category are have significant linguistic and cultural differences from English and so are harder to learn. The FSI extimates about 44 weeks or 1,100 class hours to become proficient.
- Category IV: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The FSI says these are the most difficult languages for English-speakers to learn. They estimate 88 weeks or 2,200 class hours to proficiency.
Levels of proficiency matter
The time it takes to learn a language will also largely depend on your goal. Are you wanting to become fluent? Or just good enough for your next trip to Valencia? The FSI has also outlined 5 levels of proficiency:
- Level 0: No working proficiency. This person has very little working knowledge of the language. If you only know "Hola!" and "Una cerveza, por favor!", this is you.
- Level 1: Elementary proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
- Level 2: Limited working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
- Level 3: Professional working 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.
- Level 4: Full professional proficiency. The person uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.
- Level 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. The time estimates presented earlier are the FSI's estimates for individuals to reach a level 3 (professional working proficiency on this scale). Typically, it will take more and more hours to get to higher and higher levels.
How long will it take me to learn a language?
Again, it depends on you, your goals, and the language. But if you are able to put in 10 hours a day, then elementary proficiency 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.
Are ten hours a day reasonable? It could be. Here is a sample day:
- 8 am - 12 pm: Alternate listening, reading and vocabulary review using Brainscape’s foreign language flashcards.
- 12 pm - 2 pm: Rest, exercise, lunch, while listening to the language.
- 2 pm - 3 pm: Grammar review
- 3 pm - 4 pm: Write
- 4 pm - 5 pm: Talk via Skype or with locals if in the country
- 5 pm - 7 pm: Rest
- 7 pm - 10 pm: Relaxation in the language, movies, songs, or going out with friends in the language, depending on availability.
- 10pm: A few study rounds in Brainscape before bed
This list is of course for a dedicated language learner on a mission. For most of us, 10 hours a day is way too much. But the good news is that even with 1 hour a day, you would be able to ready a good level of proficiency within a year.
Find the right motivation
Seeing the end of the finish line can be a major advantage. If you don't have a clear goal or a clear expectation of how long it can take for you to learn a language, it will be easy to lose motivation.
Take some time to analyze what kind of learner you are, think about the methods and tools that best suit your learning style, and choose your goal (level of proficiency). For some people, a language will need time to gestate and may not click in for months. For others, language learning will move a lot quicker and more intensely.
If you're looking for great motivation hacks to help you on your language learning journey, check out our guide on finding the motivation to study when you want to procrastinate!
When you combine a good routine with great motivation and a regular use of Brainscape’s web and mobile flashcards for an hour or more a day, you can achieve proficiency within a couple of months!