How long does it take to learn a language from scratch?

How long does it take to learn a language?

In this post I'll attempt to answer this question and include some context along with tips and tricks on how to treat time and language learning.

How long does it take to learn a language?

The short answer: Not as long as you think. Especially languages similar to your own can be learned to a good conversational level within only a few months, assuming you put in the time regularly.

With moderate efforts, that is to say 5-7 hours a week I reckon most people could reach intermediate levels in languages close to their own within a few months.

If you went all-in and worked 4+ hours per day on a similar language you could probably become quite fluent in just a month, as my friend Connor demonstrated in his documentary: Spanish in a month.

But it depends on a lot of factors, that I'd like to explore below.

The long answer: Language learning is an incredibly complex process and it has a lot of different factors that determine how fast you're going to actually learn that foreign language.

Factors determining how fast you're going to learn a language:

  1. How many hours can you devote per day?
  2. Do you have experience in independent language learning?
  3. Which language are you learning?
  4. Do you suffer from mental or physical problems?

Let's take them one at time.

How many hours can you study per day

Notice I said hours. That's of course not a requirement for learning languages nor is it particularly realistic for our modern, busy lives.

When I speak with highly succesful language learners on the podcast, one of the number one traits they share is that they spend a lot of time on their language learning.

Some even make it seem extremely casual.

“When I was learning Swedish I'd do 4 hours a day of desk-time, and then try to talk to as many Swedish people I could” is something I might hear.

4 hours!? I thought – that's crazy!

Don't get me wrong, you don't have to spend 4 hours a day to learn languages but it definitely explains some people's ability to pick up a lot of languages relatively quickly.

You also have to be careful with burning out. Going all in on language learning as a new learner you're probably hyper-motivated and want to do 8 hours a day.

However, that can quickly lead to burnout where you just give up completely.

A better strategy is to start nice and easy to try and get maybe an hour in a day, split over a few sessions.

Mini-sessions are great because they don't take a lot of motivation to do, and you can leverage them to work longer.

For example, do 5 flashcards or read one page in my self-study book would be super easy to motivate myself to do. However once I'm in the zone doing my 5 flashcards I might say, since I'm here on Memrise anyway I might as well do 5 more.

Imagine if I had started out by saying; I'm going to do 50 flashcards. I might not have even started. Therefore, aim low and you might get way more done.

That's how you can hack motivation. 5 flashcards turning into 10-20-50!

Do you have experience?

Another success trait I observed in hyperpolyglots was that they actually sped up their learning process.

As you know more and more languages, learning new ones becomes a simple trick of assimilating the knowledge you have from other languages into the new one.

You also draw from your experience of what languages, expressions, vocabulary and grammar points are important to know in what stage of the learning.

There's also the unbeatable confidence you have internally. If you have never learnt a language on your own before, you might question whether it's even possible.

If you have learnt a language, however, you will have no doubts you can learn this next one as well.

The first language you decide to learn on your own is definitely the hardest.

If you are learning your first language I'd like to just say, keep going! It'll get easier.

Which language are you learning?

The choice of language also greatly influences how long it takes to learn a language.

Languages, however much they fulfil a similar purpose, are not equal in difficulty. Som languages are harder than others.

It's hard to quantify this objectively, because you always have to approach this from the learner's perspective.

It's way harder for a Mandarin native speaker to learn French than it is for him to learn Cantonese even though Cantonese might be described as harder, objectively speaking.

Similarly Arabic for me as a Danish native speaker is really at the top of the scale, objectively looking, but if you asked a Persian native speaker he would probably learn it in a flash.

Conversely I could probably learn Norwegian in a week!

Do you suffer from mental or physical problems?

As somebody who's suffered from major depression I can tell you that you're not going to be learning as fast as you would without it.

Naturally this goes for other problems like anxiety, bipolar disorder and even physical brain trauma.

These problems cause you to have trouble focusing and also might make acquiring new memories extra difficult.

The important thing if this is indeed true for you, is to not worry about the speed of which you progress, but rather that you do something every day.

Consolidate the memories and keep the streak going. A little bit every day is the key to success. Eventually you will make it – I'm certain of it.

Count the hours not the months

Comparison can be dangerous.

I've seen many learners get discouraged when they are not fluent 3 months into their language missions (I was one of them.)

They might've seen Benny Lewis do it, so why did they fail so spectacularly?

Well, first of all don't count the months – count the hours.

When Benny Lewis, as an example, is in language mission mode he will learn the language as if it were his full job.

That's 8+ hours per day, usually immersed in the country and with daily tutoring. That means after 3 months, that he has put in more time into language learning than most people do in all their school years combined.

So when you say; I've been learning French for 3 months and saw no progress, ask yourself: How many hours did you really spend on it per day on average? I'd be willing to bet it was not 8 hours.

As a side note, it's also dangerous to compare yourself to super succesful learners because they've obtained a lot of the experience as I mentioned previously in this article.

Compare yourself to me instead, I'm just a normal, lazy guy taking it one step at a time 😉

Don't find time – make time

My final point in this post answering the question: ‘How long does it take to learn a language?' deals with the endless excuses people make for themselves when they are struggling to learn a language, or even fail to get started.

“I don't have any time to learn German” somebody I'd just been introduced to lately told me.

I called her out on the lie, by explaining that learning a language or doing any hobby is not a matter of finding time – it's about making it.

It's also a lie because learning a language without a deadline doesn't have to take a huge commitment of time every day. In fact even 5 minutes a day will get you far over a year's time.

Usually people waste a lot of time every day. Here are some of the top time sinks that can be reduced in order to fit in some language learning and greatly reduce How long does it take to learn a language

  1. Commuting: Commuting is great, because it allows you to absorb audio-based methods like Pod101, do courses like Duolingo, or learn flashcards with Memrise.
  2. Using social media: Websites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest are designed to be time sinks. If you want to really optimise your productivity you could turn off your newsfeed in Facebook.
  3. Sleeping: Wake up 15 minutes earlier or go to bed 15 minutes earlier than usual. The brain is usually very receptive to learning in the morning – give it a try.
  4. TV/YouTube/Streaming: The domino-effect, binge-streaming or other terms for endlessly watching video content is a huge time sink.
  5. Games: As a former gaming-addict I can definitely say that if you're playing any kind of video game, you've probably got loads of time to learn a language. In fact, because I used to track 99% of my computer use I can tell you that in 2015 I spent over 500 hours playing video games. According to many resources that would've been enough to get a high intermediate level in a similar language to my own. Dang!

Note: I'm not saying you can't watch videos or play games

We all need our breaks and entertainment to unwind.

The above arguments are mainly for people who feel like they have no time to learn languages. Mostly it's just a psychological barrier.

In fact, learning a language is a conscious priority. Not a “Let-hope-I-find-some-time-this-week”-thing.

If you want to learn that foreign language badly enough – you make time for it.

How long does it take to learn a language?

The boring conclusion is that it varies. According to the US Department of State Foreign Service Institute the class room hours required to gain a high intermediate level varies from easy languages (575-600 hours) to hard languages (2200 hours)

These estimates are applicable to English native speakers only, and I'm not sure how accurate they really are.

For one independent learners learn way faster. Secondly we're all quite different.

But anyway, I'd say, focus on mastering the habit of learning a little bit every day. Then eventually you will learn the language.

Whether it takes 6 months, 1 year or 2 years you'll still enjoy all the benefits along the way. Except you won't worry about how fast you can do it.

Where to go from here? Check out some of my favourite language learning tools and services on the resources page 
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  • […] The top secret resource famous multilinguals use to learn many languages […]

  • […] What I’m trying to say, is that you should not pick up Michel Thomas expecting to go from nothing to fluency with it alone. Having the right expectations will mean the difference between getting frustrated and not. You also need to spend the time on it, something I talked to earlier in the year. […]

  • Veronica S. says:

    Hey Chris! Great post! I am on my journey to learn German with two clear goals: the first one is to be able to hold a conversation at a mid-level by July 1st of this year. The second goal is to be fluent in German by October 1st of this year, with sufficient technical vocabulary in my repertoire as to be able to discuss technical stuff with my colleagues in Germany.

    When I set up my mind on a task, I am relentless. I am committed to study at least 1 hour daily. I read phrases out loud, repeat many times, play games in German. My patient husband is constantly listening to me repeat phrases over and over again (bless his heart!). I am on my first whole week and I haven’t missed a day.

    Since languages were ment to be spoken, I decided to contact a German colleague who works here at our facility. It may be a coincide, but he happens to love teaching German and he doesn’t have too many people wanting to learn it. So when I asked him if he could help me with my pronunciation, he graceously offered not only to help me with that, but he and his wife want to be my tutors (I’m glad I’m not shy and I asked for help!). I meet with him few minutes daily (about 10 to 15) during his breaks and we agreed to meet one evening a week at his house for me to have an hour of talking with him and his wife.

    Bottom line: to learn a language, the same way as learning anything else, requires discipline, commitment and knowing that if we wait to have all the vocabulary in the world before we even dare to even say “Hallo”, we won’t never make it.

    • Chris Broholm says:

      What a delightful comment Veronica and I’m excited that you’ve jumped in headfirst to learn German. To me german is one of the most beautiful languages in the world and I’m happy that I understand 95% of it, and speak a fair bit too – I’m a bit rusty though!

      I think your relentless nature of studying at least one hour per day is the first “key” to success in languages – doing it consistently and preferably every day if possible.

      Thank you once again for commenting and good luck with your new found tutors 🙂

  • […] I’m inherently slightly lazy when it comes to things I have to do. That does not mean I don’t enjoy the things I procrastinate from doing – trust me I’ve had times where I was too lazy to play video games. This means that I really struggle with ‘putting the hours in’ which is by far the biggest secret of language learning success. […]

  • Dang_David says:

    I have a goal to be fluent in French (B1 or B2) by August of next year. I am a watchmaking student who is hopefully going to work in Switzerland post-graduation and want/need to speak French for employment/living opportunities.

    I plan on practicing an hour a day (mix between Rosetta Stone and Duolingo) as well as supplementing with French films, music, and audio podcasts to reinforce my listening skills.

    I’m glad I found your site!

    • Execellent work ethic David! Most important is to just keep at it, and you will be successful!

      Bon voyage!

    • Chris Broholm says:

      So great to see that you got a goal set, and it’s a very realistic one! So many people set up stupid goals like fluent in Russian in 3 months (uhm….about that….) which creates an unhealthy learning environment.

      Your method sounds solid and if you just keep doing that 1 hour a day you will find yourself fluent faster than you ever thought possible. Once you have some basics of conversation down I can highly recommend getting a tutor from iTalki. They really boost your progress in conversational fluency.

      Thanks for the nice comment, and let’s learn languages together! 🙂

      • Dang_David says:

        I will definitely get back to you once I get confident that I have the basics down.

        Regarding the hour-is it more beneficial to do it all at once, or would two, 30-minute sessions (30 minutes in the morning, 30-45 minutes in the afternoon) be as be just as helpful? Some days, my schedule just doesn’t allow for me to sit down for an hour and practice (between school, household chores, working out, homework).

        • Chris Broholm says:

          Since our concentration peaks at 20 minutes or for some even faster, I would say splitting the hour up allows you to be more focused. For instance 3×20 minute sprints is way better than 1×60 minutes

          • Dang_David says:

            You just made my day! Thank you so much for the reply!

  • Stella Nahc says:

    I am listen breaking news English repeatedly. By listening and reading, I gather more information on one particular topic a day and I can ace my test one day.

    • Chris Broholm says:

      Great idea, do you try to write down what they say? I have some people doing that and they find it very helpful.

  • Harrison says:

    Hi Kris,

    I know this article is a number of years old but I just wanted to say it’s a really great article. I’ve read Benny Lewis’s and while he makes good points (and is obviously successful) it didn’t resonate with me that well.

    I’ve struggled to attempt to learn a language for many years (Japanese), even my wife is Japanese but I haven’t made progress. With other activities I do such as exercise and study outside of work it seems impossible to find the motivation to study a language on top. Thanks for the article.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      You’re welcome Harrison! I’d say you’re not struggling to learn Japanese, you’re just taking it one step at a time with the time you have available in the day. I just recently began a full-time job and realised just how hard it is to put a lot of language learning into an already busy schedule. However, it can be done! Do you have any tutors via skype or in person who’s not your wife? My experience tells me it’s better to use strangers than close ones for learning.

      • Harrison says:

        I agree about tutors, although I’m thinking to start with a focus on reading as that appeals to me more.

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