Updated: Dec 31, 2020
An important part of the language learning journey is setting realistic expectations. Like many things in life, it is easy to get excited about the prospect, say: “I’m gonna do it!” and then give up the next day. This often happens not because we are bad people, but because we underestimated the time and effort that would need to be put into the task. Some people on the other hand may set the bar too high, overestimating the time that is necessary and becoming daunted by a seemingly endless number of hours they will need to put in to learn the language.
Language is a tool and can be used for many purposes. Identifying the purpose that YOU need it for is the first step in setting realistic and relevant language learning goals. Depending on your goal you can estimate the time investment, or depending on your time you can understand what you might hope to attain. The reason you are learning may be for study, travel, a relationship, work, or plain interest. Each of these ends requires you to learn different elements of the language and to reach a different level. The vocabulary you will need for travel is different than the one you will need for work, and the time it will take to reach those levels is completely different.
Basically, before you start your journey, you're going to want to know how long it will take you to reach your destination. That leads us to the question: How long does it take to learn a language?
If you want a simple answer without getting into too much detail you can check out our “how long will it take me to learn a language” calculator HERE. If you want to understand what lies behind the calculator and why certain things affect how quickly we learn a language – continue reading!
What's the problem?
If we take the Foreign Service Institute’s (Diplomat training institution of the US state department) estimate then It will take you anywhere between 600 – 2200 hours (language groups I - IV) to learn a language to a “professional working proficiency” depending on the language. There are three issues with this estimate:
The first is that - it was made for English speakers and language difficulty is measured in terms of their relationship to the English language. So, while the estimate that it will take a native English speaker 2200 hours to learn Japanese might be accurate, it is not true for a native Mandarin (Chinese) speaker who is already familiar with the characters and some similar vocabulary.
The second issue is that - while “professional working proficiency” is a worthy goal, it is quite a high one, and not relevant to everyone. In that case, if I just want to pick up some basic chit chat for my next trip to Spain, it might take me a fraction of the 600-hour FSI estimate.
The third issue is that - except for your native language and language goals, there are many more factors that can influence your ability to pick up a language such as your age, location, language learning experience, etc. Without taking these into consideration, it would be hard to accurately estimate how long it will take.
In order to solve this problem, we need to develop a more accurate formula that takes all the variables into account. We will use the FSI estimate as a baseline and adjust it according to our added factors.
Setting language learning goals
Let’s start with the goal. We will use the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) as a measuring stick. The CEFR puts language proficiency on a scale of six levels from A1 to C2, where A1 is a very basic functional level (Sufficient for a traveler per se) and C2 is a near-native fluency. Judging by the CEFR definitions and the time estimates of the FSI and ranking on the ILR scale, the FSI definition of “professional working proficiency” is between a B2 and C1 level on the CEFR scale, and for our purposes will be considered B2.
Now we must figure out the relative tie it takes to move from level to level on the CEFR scale. If we use English language data from Cambridge English, we can plot out the following chart:
First, we figure out the ratio between the hours required to reach B2 level (or our FSI “professional working proficiency”) and all other CEFR levels, then we can apply it to the FSI estimates of various difficulties of languages. This already lets us see that for example if I am an English speaker learning Mandarin Chinese, and my goal is only some basic communicative skills for my next trip, then I will need “only” approx. 330 hours to do so, and not the formidable 2200.
Now that we have adjusted the scales, we need a way to determine where on the FSI scale (group I - IV) our target language is, again, in relation to our native language. The assumption being that, the more different your target language is from your native language the higher you will be on the scale, and the longer it will take you to learn the language.
How different are languages?
Languages can differ from each other in many elements, and not each element is as significant as the other. The big three would be – alphabet, vocabulary, and grammar, but not much less significant is sentence structure, gendered words, pronunciation, temporality, and conjugation.
Let's try and form this into a series of questions that can be later transformed into a numerical scale. Every question can be answered with:
Yes, very much (3 points), To an extent (2 points), Not so much (1 point).
1. Does your target language use a different alphabet?
2. Is your target language's vocabulary different? (Loan words, etymological relatives)
3. Does your target language follow a different sentence structure?
4. Does your target language conjugate verbs differently?
5. Is your target language different in the way it “Genders” words?
6. Does your target language contain new pronunciations and sounds?
7. Is your target language different in the way it uses tones or pitch?
8. Is your target language different in the way it addresses temporality? (Time)
Now add up the sum of all the questions to see your final score. Use the final score to determine which group your target language belongs to relative to your native language:
8-10 points: Group I – very similar
11-14 points: Group II - similar
15 -19 points: Group III - different
20 -14 points: Group IV – very different
As you can see, to calculate this way, you will need a decent understanding of your target language. If this task is unfeasible, you can still try to ballpark it based on your general knowledge but do note that it will affect the accuracy of the final result.
A related factor to take into consideration is your general knowledge of languages. Being multilingual or previously having learned a language can shorten your learning time for two main reasons.
The first, relating to the language difference factor, is that the more languages you know the higher the chances that your target language holds similarities to a language you speak. This can be factored in by answering the above questions with all languages taken into consideration, which will increase the number of commonalities and lower the overall score.
The second advantage is that you are more likely to be familiar with learning language methods and already have developed successful learning habits. This we will take into consideration along with our next category – the way you learn.
Language study habits and activities
Not all hours of learning are created equal. We measure the time it takes to learn a language in hours, but hours of what? Just like when working out, an hour of light jogging is not like an hour of running, and doing a few pushups at home is not like lifting weights at the gym, so too language learning “workouts” are not all the same in there effectiveness.
Language learning could be done at different intensities. You may be enrolled in a course, take private lessons, use an app on your phone, read books, listen to music and podcasts, or do a language exchange. And even though listening to your favorite tunes in your target language is highly recommended as part of the overall process, an hour of doing so is still a far way from an hour of professional teaching or sitting down for an hour of self-study.
Since the FSI estimate was made in the context of a language course, we will have to see how it translates in the case of different language learning activities.
For the sake of simplicity, we will divide study habits into three levels of intensity – high, mid, and low intensity. To get a broad idea of what your study habits are or will be like, take a look at the following:
Mid intensity - Language course, Reading.
Low intensity – Watching TV, Phone app, Listening to music.
*We consider here only the time dedicated to the language you are learning. The time you spend teaching others is not "study time", but rather a “time cost” (like the monetary cost for teachers). Language exchange is considered one of the more effective learning methods given that you do it right. Having a language exchange partner or being part of a language exchange community like Langroops, has other perks beyond just the study time. You are exposed to the culture and people that live the language you are learning, and create valuable relationships that motivate you to stick to your learning.
Of course, this is a very general estimate. The best learning practices would involve an eclectic approach where you incorporate various activities into your study and leisure time. When defining your study habits, address the activities you will spend most of your time on. For example, if you are taking a course and also watch movies sometimes then you are studying at a mid-intensity level. On the other hand, if you are primarily using a phone app and see a private tutor once a month, you are studying at a low-intensity level. Note that the FSI measurements are considered mid-intensity (language course) and different study habits can make your learning time longer or shorter than their estimate.
Where to learn a language
The environment your in goes hand in hand with study habits. Where you are learning can have a great effect depending on how you are learning. If you are in an immersive environment, in other words, a country where they speak your target language, and you are studying the language, then the time required to reach your target level can be significantly reduced. Being exposed to the language throughout the day, overhearing conversations, reading posters, and the necessity to use the language are accelerators of the learning process when coupled with active study. Just being in an immersive environment is not enough to master a language and many spend years in a foreign land without picking up more than the very basics for lack of trying.
Last but not least, your age. It is well known that the younger you are, the easier it is for you to absorb a new language. Not only that but at a certain age, it becomes almost impossible to fully master certain elements of a language, such as accent. But age isn’t all bad. As we get older, we become more aware of ourselves and how we learn, and we already have a firm foundation of concepts and abstract ideas in our native language. For example, a child first has to learn what “excellence” means, but an adult simply has to learn how to say it in a new language. Since the FSI is an institution for adults, we will assume their estimate is relevant to people at an average age of 35. Meaning, if you are younger than 35, then it will likely take you less time, and if you are older it will take you more.
Add it all up
Now that we have taken all the main factors into account, we can more accurately calculate how long it will take you to achieve your language goals. To get a quick answer based on what you have read here, check out our “how long will it take me to learn a language” calculator HERE.
After completing this simple preparation for your language learning journey, you are ready to begin! Stay tuned to our blog for more language learning articles and tips.
Disclaimer: This article is meant to give learners a general idea about the required time investment. Actual times may vary based on personal conditions. The estimates are based on online resources and the experience of an avid language learner.