How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?

There are a lot of factors at work here, but I'll give you the answer. 400 Hours. How did I arrive at that number? Some time ago, I wrote an article on this - How Long Will it Take to Learn a Language? where I referenced my sources - The ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages), CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) and FSI (Foreign Service Institute). All three institutions have a level designated roughly as 'proficient' which requires about 400 hours of study to achieve.

This 'proficient' roughly equates to being able to express yourself in all basic everyday situations. It is not 'fluent' by any technical or academic definition, but most people would consider this 'fluent enough,' and most people would agree that it constitutes having 'learned' a language.

I was pretty secure with this 400 hour number, but I've gone a step further and looked for some anecdotal evidence. I didn't have to look very far as two of the most popular figures in language learning on the internet have demonstrated these numbers time and again.

Popular Irish polyglot Benny Lewis demonstrates this repeatedly and documents it on his blog Fluent in 3 Months. He accomplishes this using many different resources, but his cornerstone is actually going to the country where the language is spoken. It gets difficult trying to quantify how many hours Benny is studying and how many more
hours he is just living and using the language in real life. But there is that 3 months time frame.

Another popular figure is Moses McCormick, whose many videos can be found on Youtube - just search for 'Moses McCormick' or use his Youtube handle Laoshu505000. Moses uses very different techniques from Benny, but still generally learns a new language every 3 months. The biggest difference between him and Benny is that Moses does it all from home, something most people would identify with better. From what I could decipher from Moses study techniques, 4 hours a day for 3 months sounds about right for how he gets to a conversational level in each language he learns.

I also remembered Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Work Week, who also has advice for becoming functional in a language in roughly 3 months. In fact, after just re-reading his book, he even uses the same number I referenced - 4 hours per day for 3 months.

It may depend on what methods you use, what your personal goals are, what your natural abilities are and a host of other factors. Or, you could just grab a bunch of learning materials blindly and just start working. Before very long, you will figure out what's working and what isn't, what you like and what you don't like and start adjusting from there. Whatever you do, just do 400 hours of it.

Comments for How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?

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500+ hours in most cases
by: Anonymous

I saw some FSI information that said 500-600 hours of study was necessary to get to FSI level 3 with French and Spanish. Russian was quite a bit harder with 1100 hours being necessary for an FSI level 3 proficiency in both speaking and reading/writing.

I am starting Russian, and it is quite a bit harder than French. Having looked into several language learning programs, I think Pimsleur is a good place to start, as at least speaking the language should be learned before grammar and in-depth reading and writing. If you start out reading and writing before getting a good grasp on the spoken sounds, you will induce your native sound for words into the new words of your foreign language. That will produce a non-native accent. I think that Pimsleur is correct in this point.

Response to 500+ hours in most cases
by: Ron

Thanks for your comments. Just a few points on why I settled on that 400 hours :

- It was a compromise between the three systems I looked at. They each have different 'levels' and this seemed like a reasonable middle ground.

- I think that at roughly 400 hours people really begin to feel like they have 'learned' the language. There is more confidence, creative and independent use of the language (rather than just spouting out a few memorized sentences), and a general feeling of competency, without necessarily being fluent or even mistake-free. I almost feel like it is some kind of 'minimum threshold' that needs to be reached.

- I am also considering that a motivated learner will do better than those level guides suggest. I think that with multiple sources of learning and input, and with the synergies that are produced by getting input from outside one particular learning system, a learner can learn more efficiently and effectively.

I do agree, of course, that some languages that are further removed from your native language (like a native English speaker learning Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese or Russian for example) will require more time to achieve that level.

Great point about learning to read a language before learning how it sounds. There is a definite danger and temptation to rely on our native sound set or even an 'imagined' sound set, only to have to relearn the new one once listening and speaking begins. This is a big reason that I like Pimsleur so much for someone beginning a new language. It really gets the sound of it in your head (and out your mouth!) before you have developed any bad habits.

But also, reading while listening can go a long way toward nullifying that. I like for this reason. Steve Kaufmanns whole system is based on extensive listening while reading the transcript. Also, Alexander Arguelles shadowing technique is great for developing that new sound set.

Thanks and good luck with your Russian!

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