How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?

Making 2020 the year you finally do it!

How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?

A question that everyone wants to know! Classroom teachers, businessmen, students, and politicians wonder all the time about this issue.

However, there is a difference between the questions “How long does it take to learn a language?” and “How long does it take learners to attain fluency in a foreign language?”

Because one can learn a few phrases in a matter weeks to get by as a tourist but another thing is to actually accomplish a distinguished level. So the answer really depends on the degree of proficiency you want to achieve.

Language proficiency encompasses four areas: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  This means it is appraised in terms of being able to receive (understanding or processing) and express in a particular language.

The skillset includes syntax, vocabulary, semantics, pronunciation, verb conjugation, etc.

Therefore, an individual can develop greater abilities in one area than others.

It is possible to read and make-up for the gaps, overhear a conversation and gauge what they are talking about, and be able to get the intended message across using a limited vocabulary.

It is even plausible to engage in a conversation using idioms and other expressions inherit to locals! But that doesn’t mean that the person can produce grammatically correct sentences. As Eva Sandoval, BBC writer, mentions in her article How do we measure language fluency?, “while fluency may denote a degree of proficiency, it does not automatically imply accuracy”.

Now, let’s look at some data regarding the process of learning English in an academic environment.

How Long Does it take to Develop Oral and Academic English Proficiency?

In the United States of American, this question has been long debated to create and improve existing federal policies that shape the education of children who acquire English as a second language at public schools.

The country has increasing language diversity. Data from the American Community Survey published by the United States Census Bureau shows that 20% of the entire American population speaks a language other than English at home.

Spanish is by far the leading language spoken after English, banking over 41 million people.

Between 1982 and 1996 an American longitudinal study involving 700,000 English language learners was carried out in order to find out how long it would take young students with no English background to reach native speaker proficiency.

The experiment included variables such as their age, their mother tongue, their socioeconomic status, their country of origin, the type of programs that were used to learn the language, and the number of years of primary schooling.

Researchers found that the variable with most influence was the amount of formal schooling that children had received in their first language.

Furthermore, the English learners had a lot of catching-up to do with their native peers.

From fourth grade through high school the gap between native English speakers and English language learners widened, regardless of the language the children spoke at home, Asian and Latins had the same results.

Results showed that it took between 5 to 7 years to achieve the desired level of English; this time-frame was for children age 8-11 years old and who had received 2-3 years of formal schooling.

In addition, a more recent study run by the Linguistic Minority Research Institute at the University of California looked into four different school districts in California to find some answers.

The results showed that oral proficiency could take between 3 to 5 years to attain, whilst academic English proficiency could take between 4 to 7 years to fully develop (matching the results from Thomas and Collier).

Therefore, the findings suggest the need of augmenting the amount of hours of services currently provided to limited-English-proficient students.

The paper also refers to a “progressive gap” between the native speakers and the English learners, with the latter continuing to enlarge their vocabulary, general knowledge, and mastery of English language as they progress through the elementary years.

The research also states that “students from lower socioeconomic status are the ones who on average are learning English more slowly”.

Thus, it is necessary to factor in this kind of issues when creating public policies, designing English language programs, and applying tests.

Does that mean that it will take you 7 years to learn a second language? Well, yes, and no, it is hard to tell! The time really depends on many variables.

The 10,000 hour Rule to Become an Expert

“Experts are made, not born.” The truth behind this popular saying has been tested several times by scientists. Is genius a God-given gift, dependent on one’s IQ or just a matter of practice and perseverance?

Benjamin Bloom, author of Developing Talent in Young People (1985), highlighted three factors that were common to mathematicians, neurologists, Olympic athletes, and musicians who had achieved mastery in their fields:

  1. They had practiced persistently.
  2. They had outstanding and dedicated teachers.
  3. They had a supportive family.

But according to K. Anders Ericsson, author of The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, real expertise must meet these three elements:

  1. It must lead to performance that is consistently superior to that of the expert’s peers.
  2. Produce concrete results.
  3. Can be replicated and measured in the laboratory.

Ericsson proposed the idea of “deliberate practice”, which calls for sustained efforts of learning something you can´t do or you are not very good at. In addition, experts must think deliberately and try to eliminate their weaknesses.

In The Making of an Expert, Ericsson explains that it takes around ten years or 10,000 hours of intense training to achieve expertise (such as wining an international competition).

In fact, in some fields such as music, it may take up to 15 to 25 years!

Some Canadian language researches believe that the 10,000 hour rule can be applied to achieve language mastery.  If that was the case, reflect how you could get in the 10,000 hours of practice in your busy life?

We believe that the attention should not be focused on whether a person (no matter the age) speaks or understands a language but as to how well he or she does it.

For instance, academic proficiency may refer to the ability of a person to use the language in a scholarly context, whereas professional proficiency states the capacity of a person to comprehend sociolinguistic and cultural references as well as the slang of a particular trade.

When embarking on a language learning challenge it is advisable to set a clear goal as to what level of proficiency you would like to achieve. Be honest about how well you need or want to speak a language!

It will facilitate the process for you and your teachers by establishing a realistic time frame for your progress.

Consequently, this takes us to another question:  How can we assess language proficiency?

How is Language Proficiency Measured?

Understandably, there are several ways of evaluating language skills. Firstly, to measure a student’s proficiency it is possible to use instruments developed by certain institutions such as the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) serves for English pupils.

Secondly, there are international parameters that are frequently applied, including those from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, the U.S. Interagency of Language Roundtable, and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Below you can observe the level names or ranking of each organization that shows progressive language proficiency:

  • The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) organizes language proficiency in six levels.
CEFR Level Names
A1 Beginner Basic User
A2 Elementary
B1 Intermediate Independent User
B2 Upper Intermediate
C1 Advanced Proficient User
C2 Proficient
  • The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) provides proficiency guidelines which are used worldwide by government agencies, private organizations, and academic institutions.
ACTFL Level Names
1 Novice
2 Intermediate
3 Advanced
4 Superior
5 Distinguished
  • The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) is an unfunded organization that groups several agencies of the United States Federal Government.
ILR Level Names
0 No Proficiency
1 Elementary Proficiency
2 Limited Working Proficiency
3 Professional Working Proficiency
4 Full Professional Proficiency
5 Native or Bilingual Proficiency

According to the ILR’s website, these are the number of weeks it would take an English native speaker to achieve Professional Working Proficiency.

Category I Languages: 24-30 weeks (600-750 class hours)
Languages more similar to English.
Danish (24 weeks) Dutch (24 weeks) French (30 weeks)
Italian (24 weeks) Norwegian (24 weeks) Portuguese (24 weeks)
Romanian (24 weeks) Spanish (24 weeks) Swedish (24 weeks)
Category II Languages: Approximately 36 weeks (900 class hours)
German Haitian Creole Indonesian
Malay Swahili
Category III Languages: Approximately 44 weeks (1100 class hours)
“Hard languages” – Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English. This list is not exhaustive.
Albanian Amharic Armenian
Azerbaijani Bengali Bulgarian
Burmese Czech Dari
Estonian Farsi Finnish
Georgian Greek Hebrew
Hindi Hungarian Icelandic
Kazakh Khmer Kurdish
Kyrgyz Lao Latvian
Lithuanian Macedonian Mongolian
Nepali Polish Russian
Serbo-Croatian Sinhala Slovak
Slovenian Somali Tagalog
Tajiki Tamil Telugu
Thai Tibetan Turkish
Turkmen Ukrainian Urdu
Uzbek Vietnamese
Category IV Languages: 88 weeks (2200 class hours)
“Super-hard languages” – Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.
Arabic Chinese – Cantonese Chinese – Mandarin
Japanese Korean

How Long to Learn a Language?

Still wondering: But how long it will take me to learn a new language? Well, it can be concluded that the answer is unique to each person.

Some factors that can influence (for better or worse) your process include:

  • Your schooling level
  • Your cognitive skills
  • Your  overall nutrition
  • Your health condition
  • Your learning style
  • Your current language skills (are your already bilingual or a polyglot?)
  • Your character
  • Your perseverance and commitment
  • Your support network

Thus, to speed the route it is desirable to take control of your learning process and improve all the aforementioned areas as much as you possibly can!

Finally, here are some round suggestions:

  1. Take every opportunity to be exposed to the foreign language you are trying to master.
  2. Find expert teachers according to the level you are in (or the stage of the learning process you are at). Having expert coaches at each phase is crucial, says Ericsson.
  3. Identify the proficiency level you want to achieve and set clear goals. Trace a deliberate studying plan.
  4. Practice deliberately, be willing to put in the time and effort, and keep challenging yourself.
  5. Recognize your learning style.
  6. Create a positive learning environment. If you hate the classroom’s smell or you are feeling totally drained before starting the class it is possible you won’t learn much.
  7. Keep yourself motivated by identifying your true desires. Dig deep my friend.
  8. Be patient. There is no other way around it!