How long does it take to learn a language?

Aug 19 2020

How does it really take to learn a language? There is no magic number, or an absolute answer, because there are many factors that can influence the resulting time it takes.

I have spent years learning 9 languages, via different approaches, to varying degrees of fluency. And in this post, I will be answering the question from different angles.

What does fluency mean to you?

"Learning a language" is not a clearly defined goal.

Even the word "fluency" is itself elusive, with many possible meanings. For different people, being fluent could mean:

  • Effortlessly communicating your thoughts
  • Knowing 5,000 common words
  • Understanding everything being conveyed in most conversations
  • Being able to conduct business in the target country
  • Passing as a native speaker
  • You get the idea. The level of time commitment and the approach vary greatly, depending on your objectives.



    Duration and time commitment

    It also helps to break down the question of "how long it takes". There is a difference between the duration of your language learning, and the time committed to practicing the language (directly or indirectly).

    Obviously, your time commitment and intensity matters. You can casually learn a language for years, or fully immerse yourself and pick it up in a matter of months.

    As you will see in a later section, estimates for how long it takes to learn a language are typically given in number of hours .


    The approach matters, a lot

    Are you learning in a classroom? From a textbook? Or are you making friends with native speakers and chatting with them frequently?

    Taking the right approach given a clearly defined goal can dramatically compress the amount of time required.

    In my experience, I went from knowing very little about the Japanese language to conversational proficiency within 3 months . The learning was accelerated, as I moved to Japan and worked at a Japanese company. Whereas after 4 months of learning Russian in a classroom , or spending years dabbling in French , I still struggle to hold a meaningful conversation.

    My obversations from meeting many language leanrers over the years seem to confirm this as well.


    What you already know

    As well, how long it takes to learn your target language depends on what you already know. If you already know Portuguese or Italian, learning Spanish would not be very hard.

    For instance, the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) gives very different estimates how it takes to learn Japanese, for learners who have prior kanji (Chinese characters) knowledge and those who don't.

    For Americans, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) groups languages in into four categories, each with a different estimate for how long it takes.


    Official numbers

    With the caveats explored above, here are some official estimates for how long it takes to learn a language. This should give you a rough idea how long it takes, in general terms.

    To achieve N2 level in Japanese (with no prior Kanji knowledge), JLPT estimates that it would take 1600 to 2800 hours .

    Achieving CEFR B2 level for Spanish would take around 500 to 600 hours .

     ACTFL estimates 1320 class hours for Category IV languages (which includes Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), whereas  FSI estimates 2200 class hours .

    To reach HSK 5 level in Chinese, it would take 2-4 class hours per week for more than two academic years.


    Get past the question. And start learning

    Knowing how long it takes to learn a language may be a first step before diving in. What is much more important is taking actions. Recognize that this will be a significant time commitment. And it will require an active effort to practice the language and maintain, beyond the initial honeymoon period of learning the basics and low-hanging fruits.

    Be clear and honest with yourself about what your end goals are. Then find the right approach, and start making progress.


    If you enjoyed this, follow me on Twitter ! I will be sharing more practical and proven ways to cut down the time it takes to learn a language, and coming with a learning roadmap.

    Hope you enjoyed this post. Let's stay in touch.