Most of us would love to learn a regional or foreign language. However, we don’t actually try because learning a language can be very difficult. Some of us might have taken a foreign language as a subject during our high school days. Unfortunately, we couldn’t master it well and all our efforts to learn that language went waste.
That brings us to this vital question: how long does it take to learn a language?
This is a fairly difficult question. That’s because some of us have inherent skills that enable us to learn a language quickly. And others who don’t possess such skills might take years of study to get even the basic knowledge of a language.
Therefore, if you’re eager to learn a language, here’re some basic facts.
Facts about Language Learning
There’re different factors that decide how long it takes to learn a language.
There’re more than 6,000 languages around the world. Some of them are fairly easy to learn while others can prove difficult. This depends upon your native tongue too.
For example, a native Spanish speaker can easily learn fluent Portuguese and Italian since they come from the same generic family- Latin. However, a native English speaker might find it a bit difficult to master these languages because of the complex gramma and pronunciation, though some of them use the same script.
At the same time, mastering a language such as Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese), Japanese or Hindi can prove extremely difficult since they involve learning altogether new scripts.
However, learning Russian might prove easier to a native English speaker despite the fact that the language is written in the Slavic script.
Ways to Learn a Language
The time it takes to learn a language also depends upon several factors. Basically, it depends on the way to choose to learn a language and the time you’ll be spending on it daily or weekly.
Here’re different Best ways to learn a language.
- At high school
- Doing a Bachelor’s degree in a language from a college or university.
- Taking classes to master a language.
- Online language learning classes.
- Learning a language from apps.
- Living in a foreign country and learning from locals.
As you can see, there’re six different ways to learn a language. Therefore, the time you’ll take to master a language would also differ and so would your fluency levels.
For example, if you do a Bachelor’s degree in a language, you’ll be learning proper grammar and pronunciation. However, that doesn’t mean you can speak colloquially or like a local. However, if you reside in a foreign land, you’ll be able to pick up the colloquial language without learning proper grammar.
It’s also possible to acquire some basic knowledge about a language from free online courses and apps that use cards. However, this doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to speak or read that language when necessary.
Now let’s understand the various levels of language learning.
Levels of Language Learning
The US government has a system known as Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) Scale. This scale is useful for rating a person’s abilities in languages. It has gradings from 0 to 5.
Here’s the scale breakup to help you understand the ILR better.
- No Proficiency.
- Elementary Proficiency
- Limited Working Proficiency
- General Professional Proficiency
- Advanced Professional Proficiency
- Functionally Native Proficiency
There’re different definitions for these levels of proficiency too.
- Scale-0 means that you don’t have even the basic knowledge about a language. This is the level at which language learners start. Therefore, it’s nothing to worry about if you’re planning on learning a new language
- Scale- 1 signifies elementary proficiency. This means, you can have a rather simple conversation using a mix of a language and your native tongue. For example, asking permission or directions or buying something at a store.
- Scale- 2 stands for limited working proficiency. This means you can make yourself understood in a language but can’t form proper sentences or use grammatically correct words. Nor would you know the colloquial language of a place.
- Scale-3 and Scale-4 means that you can speak a language with fair fluency and form proper sentences. It signifies that you have a higher level of mastery over the language as a learner. At these levels, you should be able to converse with fair level of fluency and understand the different tenses, grammar and the colloquial usage.
- Scale-5 or Functionally Native means you’ve the same skills as a native speaker of the language and have full command over grammar and tenses. It means you can join group discussions and speak the colloquial language like a native of that place.
How Long Does It Take To Become Fluent In a Language
So, how long does it take to learn and fluent in a language? Actually, this differs from the level of ILR that you wish to achieve. The best level on ILR Scale is Scale-5, which means you can speak, read and write a language like a native of that region or country. And that’s what every language learner should aim.
Other than the ILR Scale, there’re other ways to calculate the time it would take to learn a language to Scale-5 or Functionally Native level.
These include the scales used by different organizations such as:
- American Council of Teaching Foreign Language.
- Common European Framework for Reference of Language.
- US Foreign Service Institute (FSI).
Usually, the time it takes to learn a language is based upon the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) difficulty rankings.
Because FSI ranks languages depending upon difficulty to learn and specify the exact hours you’ll require to learn one.
The Easiest and Hardest Languages to Learn
As per the FSI Difficulty Index, here’s a list of some languages that’re easy and hard to learn, especially for native English speakers. The FSI Index also includes how long it takes to learn a language.
It ranks the five topmost hardest languages to learn in the world and their difficulty ratings.
According to the FSI list the top six languages in the world are Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese), Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, and Portuguese. Therefore, most people try and learn these languages, because they wish to be able to communicate easily with a very large group of people in the world.
If you’re a native English speaker, you could consider learning any of these languages, since a large number of the world’s population use it as their lingua-franca.
The best language for native English speakers to learn easily is Espanol or Spanish. There’re several reasons why I suggest Spanish. Firstly, English as well as Spanish have a common root, the Latin language.
That’s the reason there’re several similar words in both these languages, though spellings may differ in some cases. For example, the word ‘Bank’ in English is written as ‘Banco’ in Spanish. That makes it easier for a new learner to comprehend quickly.
The structures of sentences written in both English and Spanish are also the same. However, the accents in which Spanish is spoken is different and can be learned quickly.
How long does it take to learn Spanish? According to the FSI Index, you can learn Spanish in 600 hours only, spread over a period of six months. That directly translates as four hours a day of classroom studies for six days a week.
The FSI Index states that learning fluent Portuguese also takes 600 hours of study over a period of six months. This is classroom studies for four hours a day for six days a week, and the same as Spanish.
However, learning Portuguese is a bit harder than learning Spanish due to differences in grammar and spelling as well as proper pronunciation. Furthermore, you’ll also need to learn Portuguese symbols such as the tilde and multiple accent marks that go into writing the language.
At the same time, a lot of words in English and Portuguese are also similar. Again, this happens because both these languages draw from their root, the Latin language.
The third easy-to-learn language is Hindi, the national lingo of India. Hindi is spoken by over 340 million people around the world, including India.
It is one of the leading Indo-Aryan languages and draws its roots from Sanskrit. Modern day Hindi also includes words from Urdu and English, Farsi and Turkish, among other languages.
According to FSI Index, you can master the Hindi language in 1,100 hours of classroom studies spread over period of 10 month. This means, an average of 110 hours every month, divided by 24 days of classroom study per month.
Despite having a different alphabetical system, Hindi isn’t difficult to learn. That’s because the Devanagari script in which the language is written consists of 33 consonants and 11 vowels. You might find the script a bit difficult to master at first.
However, with some practice, you can easily master the Hindi language. Pronunciation in Hindi is also vastly different from English and accents vary across the world, including in India.
Among languages that’re difficult to learn ranks Arabic. It ranks the fifth on FSI Index for difficulties. Learning Arabic requires a total of 2,200 hours spread over a period of 22 months or nearly two years.
The hardest part of learning Arabic stems from the fact that you’ve to read or write the language from right to left, unlike other languages which are written from left to right.
However, the Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, all of which are consonants. The fewer letters make it relatively easier to learn compared over other languages that use a different script.
At the same time, Arabic is spoken worldwide and is the national language in over 20 countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese)
With more than 50,000 characters, Putonghua or Mandarin Chinese ranks as the toughest language to learn. You will have to learn Mandarin Chinese over a period of 22 months with classroom studies of 2,200 hours.
What makes Mandarin Chinese so difficult to learn are the high number of characters. Instead of using simple alphabets to write a word, the Mandarin Chinese language uses separate symbols for each word. And each word has to be joined with the other. Therefore, you have to memorize all the 50,000 characters, which can prove very difficult for a learner.
Furthermore, Mandarin Chinese is also spoken in short syllables. This makes it all the more confusing to speak each word with the proper accent. A small pronunciation mistake can change the entire meaning of a sentence.
Various Factors to Learn a Language
There’re different ways to learn a language and the time taken depends upon various factors. For example, classroom studies are the best and can take as many as 2,200 hours of learning, depending on the FSI Index for that language. You can learn basics of a language from apps such as Duolingo too.
And if you’re learning just for a hobby, try any of those free online courses that offer mid-level training in a foreign language. Generally, the speed of learning a language depends upon the age and aptitude of the learner too.
For example, younger people such as high school students have a greater propensity to learn languages while it drops as we get older.
One of the best ways to learn a language is while you’re in a foreign country. However, that would require prolonged stay and mean mingling with locals.
As we can see, learning a language can take anything from six months to two years, if you want to attain expert level fluency. And if you’re aiming only for conversational knowledge, even a few weeks would be adequate to learn a language. However, a lot depends upon your individual aptitude and reasons for learning a language. It’s been observed that people that’ve a strong reason to learn a language are faster than others. Therefore, you can decide the language you wish to learn and the time you can afford to learn it, before signing up for a course.