So, you've always wanted to learn a new language.
You fantasize about feeling like a native in a far off land or impressing the server with your flawless order.
You want that rush of excitement and well-founded pride that comes from overhearing a casual conversation and realizing, “I understood that!”
There's only one problem: you're afraid of the commitment.
Like all of us, you've got a busy life and learning a language seems like a huge undertaking. Maybe you could better spend your time elsewhere? It's easy to let these fears creep in.
How long it takes to learn a new language depends on the level of fluency you'd like to acheive, your experience working with languages, your chosen target language, and how much time you have to study each week. For example, an average person will need between 600-750 hours to learn a European language, and 2,000 hours of study to learn Arabic, Korean or Mandarin.
Spoiler Alert: learning a language is likely more manageable than you might think!
To understand how long it takes to learn a language, we need to know what we mean by “learn a language” in the first place.
How Long? Great Question, Let's Refine It
Do you want to order a plate at a local restaurant? Do you aspire to debating political philosophy with a native-speaker?
These goals are quite different, but depending on the learner, either represents a perfectly reasonable target. As you might expect, the time needed to achieve the former is much shorter than for the latter.
How long do I need to study before I feel like I can speak, write, listen, and read the language well enough to get around independently?
For most, our goal in a language doesn't mean having academic debates or writing award-winning prose; instead, we want to feel the flow in our conversations, to interact with native speakers without requiring either side to modify the way they speak much.
In short, we want Actual Fluency!
So, here's the real question then:
How long do I have to study a language before we get there?
How Long Does It Take To Learn a New Language? The Short Answer
It depends on many things, but to get to decent proficiency we can estimate about ~600 hours of learning time for the easiest languages, 2,000+ hours for the most difficult.
It's more complicated than that though, so read on.
How Long Does It Take To Learn a New Language? The Long Answer
There's no one solution to this big of a question: it just depends. Still, making an educated estimate isn't impossible. Let's go through a few variables and then pull it all together.
Is This Your First Foreign Language?
Each additional language you add to your repertoire makes future languages easier! That's great if you've already got some to your name.
What if it's your first time?
For this article, we'll assume this is your first time learning a language. Welcome, the linguistic world is excited to meet you!
If you've already learned multiple languages, use this rule of thumb: reduce the estimate 10% after your first language learned and 3% for each additional language after that. Yes, this is only a rough guide, and yes this does have a point of diminishing returns.
Here's the thing: if you've already got four or more languages under your belt, something tells us you already know how long it takes to learn a language.
It Depends on the Language, Too
The time needed to learn a language also depends on the language you're trying to learn.
Some come easier than others!
Assuming you're a native English speaker, you'll find Spanish much more straightforward than Mandarin Chinese. That's because English and Spanish share a root language and alphabet (Latin) and generally structure their grammar similarly. On the other hand, Mandarin shares none of that with English, and learning a pictographic writing system poses many stumbling blocks.
The American Foreign Service Institute (FSI) groups the world's major languages based on English-speakers' difficulty learning them. Take a look at the table below.
|1 – ~600-750 Hours
|Spanish, Italian, Danish, Norwegian, Afrikaans, Portuguese,
Dutch, Swedish, Romanian
|2 – ~900 Hours
|German, Swahili, Indonesian, Malay
|3 – ~1,100 Hours
|Greek, Nepali, Slovak, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Russian,
Hebrew, Hindi, Bengali, Mongolian, etc.
|4 – ~2,200+ Hours
|Japanese, Chinese (Mandarin & Cantonese), Arabic, Korean
As noted above, the more languages you know, the easier new languages are to learn, especially within the same language family. For instance, if you already know English and Spanish, Portuguese will take you far less time than Russian or Greek.
Also, don't let the large hour estimates discourage you!
FSI trains people to work with foreign governments, which generally requires a high bar for fluency. For most of us, a comfortable B2 level with a functional every-day vocabulary is enough to achieve the kind of conversational ease we want when learning a language.
In our experience, you can achieve those languages goals in less time that the FSI estimates, especially if you've got the right learning materials.
Not all instructional content works equally well; some approaches get results faster than others!
The best systems train all four crucial language skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Many programs don't cover all four, so check this when selecting your language learning software. Also, courses that focus on functional language and utilize the latest understanding of how humans acquire language (e.g. Spaced Repetition Systems) generally perform better than traditional textbooks or simple audio courses.
Of course, each learner must discover how they learn best and bring that knowledge into selecting a course; you know yourself better than any app or system will. Also, some people naturally learn languages more quickly than others; it's all relative.
With all of that said, the Bite-Sized Languages courses made by the Actual Fluency team are tailor-made to get you up and off the ground in the least time possible while still teaching you what you need to know for success in longer-term learning. We highly recommend checking them out!
Beyond our courses, there are many great learning resources on the internet, and more crop up every year. If you'd like guidance, head over to our review blog! We test-drive the world's language apps for you and give you our honest reviews to save you time.
Intensity, the Force-Multiplier
Lastly, your learning regimen's intensity plays a vital role in how quickly you achieve your goal.
If you only practice for 15 minutes once a week your language goal will take decades.
On the other hand, if you try to force yourself to learn for ten straight hours a day you'll probably burn out long before fluency!
The sweet spot feels different for everyone, so don't be afraid to experiment with your schedule to see what works best for you. Make a daily habit of your language, even if it's only for 15 minutes some days. This accelerates your learning a lot.
For the most intrepid learners, moving to a new country to fully immerse yourself in the language is often one of the most powerful tools for achieving fluency. The passive learning benefits you get through immersion help compress the fluency timeline drastically.
For those of us who can't relocate, fear not! Working foreign language media (music, podcasts, movies, etc.) into your every-day life can help you start to reap some of those benefits too.
Putting It All Together
As you can see, there's a lot to think about when estimating how long it takes to learn a language!
Also, let's be clear: we can only estimate this. The actual amount of time will come out different for everyone.
Still, many sites don't give you any way to estimate this number, even after a lengthy article. We try to do better than other sites, so we'll give you a handy equation you can use to take a stab at it.
Without further ado, here's a (not-scientifically-studied) equation that will give you a rough estimate of how long it might take you to achieve ~B2 proficiency in your chosen language:
- FSI Hrs = The number of FSI hours for your target language from the table above.
- 0.9 = We're not going for full diplomatic fluency here, just conversational ease, so FSI's estimate is a little high. If you're not worried as much about reading and writing (Especially for level 4 languages), you might consider dropping this even further to 0.8 or so.
- PolyGlot = Your bonus multiplier for having learned multiple languages before. If you know three languages in total, you'll put down 0.87 (100% minus 13% is 87%, or 0.87) in this spot. If this is your first foreign language, leave it at 1.
- Immersion = If you're doing an actual immersion experience in another country or will be studying the language 4+ hours per day, you get a 20% bonus. Put 0.8 in this spot for full immersion (e.g. living with a host family); otherwise, scale this up to 1.0 for no immersion at all.
- Hours per Week = The real number of hours you'll spend on language learning each week.
Let's Look At An Example
For example, let's take Joel.
He knows English, Spanish, and German and is thinking of moving to Paris for six months to study French while working a new job. He's booked one hour of tutoring on iTalki every weekday evening following around an hour of solo study. On Saturdays, he'll attend a language learning coffee hour with other French learners for 2-3 hours. Will he feel fluent at the end of his stay?
The equation might look something like this:
That's pretty close to six months, so chances look good that he'll come out of France feeling decently comfortable with conversational French!
What if he did the same thing with Japanese?
Japanese is likely to take more like two years. With the right methods and truly diligent study that estimate is probably a little on the high end in our experience. Still, it's a good baseline.
Our Final Thoughts
To reiterate, we can only make a rough, back-of-the-napkin estimate of what your language timeline might look like; many things influence how long it ultimately takes. Inevitably, this estimate will end up wrong. Every person's path looks different! Still, hopefully, that little equation helps provide some useful reference.
The most important thing?
Just start. As they say, the first step is the hardest!
Download an app, get a course, call a friend, just start!
If you feel so inclined, check out our Bite-Sized Languages courses for a great intro to your language learning.
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.