How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?

As a Spanish and English teacher, some of the questions I hear most often are: “How long does it take to learn a language?”

“Can you learn a language in 6 months?”

“Can you learn a language in 3 weeks?”

And I totally get it — there is something undeniably attractive about the idea of becoming fluent in a language quickly. Especially when you have a trip coming up, or when you want to learn a language for a specific purpose!

However, providing a single answer to these questions is tricky because, in the end, how long it will take you to learn a language depends on several factors, from intrinsic motivation to how complex the new language is.

In this blog, we will explore the main factors that determine how long it will take you to learn a language so you can have a better idea of how best to structure your language-learning journey.

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How long does it take to learn a language? 5 Factors to Consider

1. The level of complexity of the target language

Let’s face it. While all languages are beautiful, interesting, and worth learning, not all of them are equally complex. The structure of a language – its alphabet, syntax, pronunciation and grammar– has an undeniable impact on how simple or difficult it is to learn it.

So, what are the easiest and most difficult languages to learn?

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is an agency within the United States Department of State that provides training and resources to members of the U.S. Foreign Service and other personnel who work in the fields of diplomacy, international affairs, and cultural exchange. So far, this is the agency that has most thoroughly classified languages according to their level of difficulty.

Here is an overview of the 5 categories established by the FSI.

Category 1

Category 1 consists of languages with similar structures to English, such as French, Spanish and Italian. These languages will take a solid 600-750 hours (24-30 weeks) to learn before students can achieve sufficient structural accuracy and fluency.

Category 2

The second category presents languages with a different but relatively easy structure for English speakers, like German, Dutch, and Swedish. These languages will require about 750 hours (30 weeks) of practice.

Category 3

Category 3 includes more complex languages with greater cultural distance from English, like Swahili and Indonesian. Students can expect to spend 900 hours (36 weeks) learning these languages before reaching enough proficiency to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations.

Category 4

The fourth category is mainly comprised of languages with complex writing systems that require mastery to be able to read and write fluently, like Greek, Russian and Polish. These languages are not only very different from English in structural terms, but they also require a great deal of cultural context to be able to communicate properly. It may take about 1100 hours (44 weeks) of practice for native English speakers to obtain fluency in these languages.

Category 5

Finally, the last category is composed of languages that are immensely different from English and require a great deal of dedication before learners can become proficient. Examples of such languages are Arabic, Chinese and Japanese.

How long does it take to learn a language from category 5? Well, according to the FSI, native English speakers can expect around 2200 hours (88 weeks) of practice to be able to communicate effectively in these languages.

Challenging? Of course. Impossible? Not at all.

2. Your current level of proficiency

Very often, my students ask me “how long does it take to learn a new language?” without realising they’re already in the process of learning it!

With adult learners, this is especially true. After one long hour of effective communication in their second language, they may say things like “Please excuse me, my Spanish is terrible”! In these situations, I always say things like: “Well, would you be able to tell me all the things you told me today if your Spanish was terrible?” to help them realise how much they already know.

What I want them to know is that the beginning of your formal studies in a language does not always coincide with the beginning of your language journey. For example, if you already know how to talk about food, friends, family and plans in your new language, you’re probably not a beginner student but a pre-intermediate learner!

This, of course, means you’ll be able to advance much quicker than if you were starting from zero.

So, if you want to learn a language fast, a good strategy is to choose a language you’re already familiar with and build on what you already know!

3. Your desired level of proficiency

As I said at the beginning, language learners often get impatient when it comes learning a new language. But how do you know how much is enough? Who determines when the “learning” is complete?

The truth is that how long it will take to learn a language depends on how much proficiency you want to achieve. For example, if your goal is to be able to hold basic conversations with native speakers, you can reach that level with as little as 350-400 hours of study in any of the languages from categories 1 and 2.

However, if you want to be able to do a Master’s degree in Chinese or become a professor of Spanish, you’ll need many more hours and an extended period of practice.

In short, before you worry about how long it will take you to learn a language, think about how proficient you need or want to be in the new language. That will help you set realistic expectations and plan your learning journey accordingly.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)

Not sure what level you need to achieve for a specific purpose? The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR will give you a very good idea of where you are and where you need to get. The CEFR is a trusted European-wide reference system that helps you assess your current level of proficiency in any language. Used by teachers, universities and employers across Europe, the CEFR offers a great way to measure your progress and know how much you need to learn to reach your goals.

When it comes to second language acquisition, the CEFRdescribes language ability on a six-point scale, from A1 for beginners up to C2 for those with native-like expertise. This makes it easy for students to understand language learning stages and plan their studies more efficiently, so make sure you read about what are the 6 levels of CEFR to know where you are in the learning process

4. Your Mindset and Motivation

So, how long does it take to learn a language? To fully answer the question, there is a very important aspect to consider:

How much effort and dedication are you willing to put into it?

Learning a language can be an incredibly rewarding experience. It can help you connect with people you love, open new professional opportunities, and even allow you to explore new cultures! But, truth be told, it can also be a challenging and sometimes frustrating process.

Even if you have the best resources, if you don’t stay motivated and positive about your progress, it can be hard to keep going when things get tough!

So, why is motivation so important?

When a learner is motivated, they’ll make sure to take advantage of all the available learning materials and practice time. (Yes, this includes studying outside the classroom!) But more importantly, they will constantly seek new opportunities to practise the language and stay focused on their learning goals.

To ensure that you are motivated throughout the learning process, try some of the following tips to get you started:

How to stay motivated while learning a language

  • Set achievable and realistic goals.
  • Join a conversation group.
  • Get help from a native teacher.
  • Incorporate your learning into your daily life.
  • Reward yourself when you achieve a goal.
  • Try to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible.

If you follow these tips, you can be sure that your language learning journey will be more enjoyable and successful and YES, faster!

5. Your Learning Methods

Can you learn a language in 3 weeks? “Yes!”, language-learning app creators will say.

Can you learn a language in 6 weeks? Perfectly possible, according to summer course promoters.

The truth is that how long it will take to learn a language depends on how efficiently you practise and how well you use the available resources.

And, when it comes to language learning, the most important thing is to find the best methods for you, based on how you learn and what your preferences are.

Are you very visual? Maybe flashcards or YouTube videos will work best for you.

Are you a bookworm? Consider rereading your favourite books, making notes and writing summaries in the target language.

Do you need more speaking practice? Join a language exchange chat group or even a multilingual social event in the city.

Learn with Language Trainers

Remember: While all the resources above can make great supplemental materials, if you want to learn a language faster you will still need to take a few lessons with a professional teacher.

Here are some of the advantages of learning with us:

  • Unlike other learning methods, our customised live lessons offer an integrated approach to language learning that covers all four skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing);
  • When you learn with Language Trainers, not only will you be able to practise with a native teacher in the language of your choice, but you will also have access to our meticulously curated materials and tips, and an in-depth assessment of your progress;
  • Having a real-time support system available to you can help you stay motivated and on track with your language learning goals;
  • We offer both online and in-person courses so you can choose the methodology that best suits your lifestyle.

→Sign Up Now: Free Trial Language Lesson With a Native Teacher!←

So, how long does it take to learn a language? The answer is: it depends. It can take anywhere from 6 weeks to many years, depending on what language you want to learn, how motivated you are, and what your goals are.

But one thing is for sure. With our tailor-made language lessons, you will be able to learn a language faster and have an amazing time doing it.

What are you waiting for? Enquire now about our private lessons with one of our native trainers and make the world your classroom.