How Long Should It Take to Learn a Language?

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The perfect foreign language self-study toolkit

One of our primary areas of interest here at Brainscape is foreign language acquisition.  Our language software programs offer one of the most convenient and effective ways to pick up a new language, and we are always looking for ways to improve on this process. One topic that seems to be of interest to language learners is the amount of time that it takes to become fluent.

To be sure, this depends on a number of factors, and the term “fluent” is pretty ambiguous in itself.  I found one really interesting post on this topic in a blog called The Linguist – check it out for yourself below.  I know this is a pretty controversial, so I’m really interested in hearing about your own opinions and experiences – please post your comments below!

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.

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

8-12: Alternate listening, reading and vocabulary review using Brainscape’s foreign language flashcards.

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. If you combine a good routine with a regular use of Brainscape’s web and mobile flashcards, we guarantee that you can achieve proficiency within just 3 months.

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit or find us on the App Store .