How long does it take to learn a language?

There’s no single answer to the question posed by the title of this post. It depends on number of factors, including what hope to do with the language, how often and how intensively you study, which language you’re learning, and which language(s) you already know.

Some language learners find it helpful to set themselves targets and goals, such as passing a language proficiency exam. This gives you something to aim for, but also puts quite a lot of pressure on you. If you don’t achieve your targets and goals, or it seems likely that you won’t, it’s easy to become disheartened and possibly to give up altogether.

Here’s an alternative way of thinking about learning, from the Effortless Language Acquisition blog:

…learning is a lifelong process. There is no end. There is no graduation. There are no “permanent grades” or records.

The author of the blog argues that if you see learning a language, or indeed anything else, as a lifelong project – Constant And Neverending Improvement (CANI) is the phrase he uses, you won’t feel so stressed or worried. Instead you can just try to improve every week, even if it’s only by a small amount.

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This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

26 Responses to How long does it take to learn a language?

  1. Ben L. says:

    I try to take that sort of long-term view regardless of what I’m learning. I just doubt I’d have the willpower to make substantive progress without having fairly specific goals.

    For example, I took two years of college German and lived there for three years after that. While I became functional in German, I never really got close to speaking consistently good German or using many higher register words, I assume because I had no real need beyond personal interest. I imagine I could improve my German even today by picking up real works of literature and poring over them.

  2. Edwin says:

    I believe in order to achieve something, we need to set goals and put in hardworks, be it langauge learning or other things. I never know someone who has made achievements without setting goals or putting in efforts. This is what achivement is all about.

    If you achieve someone without putting in any effort, I wouldn’t call it an achievement at all.

    I think the author just wants to point out that learning is never-endig. It is a lift long process. I totally agree with him on this.

  3. Travis says:

    Simon, this post sure is appreciated. I didn’t have much trouble learning French, partly because I lived in France for 2 years. But for the past 25 years, I have been struggling with Japanese, and feeling like something is wrong with me for taking so long to assimilate it. The consequence is logical however. I study it for a year, become frustrated by its complexity, and proceed to drop it for a couple more years. Then restart the whole process when the addiction kicks in afresh. I’ve studied the language 3 or 4 times during the past decades with this approach. It’s no wonder my improvement is so limited. Recently, I added TV Japan to my cable lineup, and watch it everyday for an hour. Some of the programs are very interesting, and in the last couple of months, I’ve noticed my comprehension improving. I also use the free online Japanese dictionary called Denshi Jisho at http://www.jisho.org/ for anyone interested. You can look up a single word, but it also gives you the opportunity to transfer the single word into a sentence application to see its usage in a variety of sentences. When I watch TV, I have Denshi Jisho open on my laptop and look up a few key words. The quote you posted today seems appropriate in my case, as I believe learning Japanese will be a long term pursuit. I already have the interest in spades. Just have to tweak the courage.

  4. Polly says:

    The short answer: FOREVER!
    I’m still learning English LOL! I read a novel and found myself looking up words that I had NEVER heard before. What’s an “eructation?” Now, I know. What’s “Brobdingnagian” Is this a word commonly used in Britain because I’d never heard it before I went to that Lady Fortune website. (It means “of large size” btw)
    The point is: If we still have to “learn” our native tongue once in a while, then we’re daft to think we’ll ever arrive at some kind of final, transcendant fluency in a Foreign language. Not to mention, language is always changing. Even if I knew every word in the Webster and the Oxford Dictionaries 10 years ago, I could find plenty today that would stymie me unless I kept up.

  5. David says:

    I started to learn dutch (by myself) in grade 4 and it took me until I was in year seven to get to a more advanced level. I am still learning dutch now and have started to become less and less interested as it has taken me so long to learn it. I am now currently in my third year of japanese at school and have not become, how I have with my dutch as I have schelduled times to do it (unlike dutch) and at it three to four times a week. And when will we have our next language quiz, I have unfortunately missed the last few.

  6. Polly says:

    Question: Has anyone here ever gained fluency(more or less) without at some point being totally immersed in the language?
    For example, if you’ve learned Chinese but have never been to China or Italian but never been to Italy, I would like to hear how you did it.

    My Spanish and Russian are not bad…for someone who’s never travelled to either of those countries (2 weeks in Puerto Vallarta does not count). But, free conversation even at a basic level is still beyond me in Russian and I speak Spanish like a textbook. I’m beginning to suspect that some travel is mandatory to learn a foreign language or living in a community where the L2 is the primary lang..

    Yes, I’ve heard about the superpolyglot from Italy, or wherever, who never left his homeland but acquired dozens of lang’s from visitors. That’s not the norm. You, my fellow Omnibloggers, are the ones I’m asking.

  7. Ben L. says:

    Seems like watching TV coupled with language instruction with native speakers might do the trick. The only questions are how far how fast and wouldn’t it just be easier to go there.

  8. I don’t know if you necessarily have to travel to that country if you could find a good community of native speakers where you are that would be willing to help.

    The one thing I find I have a huge problem with, though, is my nerves, when dealing with native speakers of my other languages. I get so rattled I can hardly get out the basics. Which is odd, because I’m not shy at all with English. Has anybody else had this problem and how have they dealt with it?

    About the original blog topic, I think that’s a very good mindset to acknowledge that perfection never comes, and also to celebrate small victories. I’ve started trying to teach myself to read Biblical Hebrew, and learning to read and write has been a much slower process than I’ve ever encountered before…it wasn’t this tough on me with the Greek or Cyrillic alphabets by a long shot. At first I got so frustrated I didn’t want to continue, but now I find I’m moving a little faster–albeit still at a snail’s pace compared to other languages. It at least starts to feel like an attainable goal.

  9. Polly says:

    But, has it actually worked for anyone? Does anyone have a testimonial of attaining fluidity in speech and listening? Are we all trying but not succeeding? Simon’s post has gotten me thinking (worrying?) again that my efforts may be in vain without significant travel. Like a fad-dieter who never seems to lose the weight.

    I watch Russian movies and I listen to Russian radio. Yet, I don’t feel like my comprehension is improving very much. I’m theorizing that there’s some instinct built into our brains that makes language acquisition faster when it becomes relevant to human interaction. And without that, the brain just doesn’t respond the same way.
    One may learn the language like a subject, but it doesn’t become intuitive; automatic like a reflex. Physics is all around us, but we don’t apply Newton’s laws of motion to analyze the arc that a flying golfball travels or the acceleration needed to avoid an oncoming car, our knowledge is intuitive, and, gratefully, far more effective than solving equations in path of 16-wheeler.

    Using the SAP feature on my TV I can watch American TV programs dubbed in Spanish while the TV displays English subtitles. This is a language learner’s dream! Even the subtitles are mostly unnecessary for me, now. Too bad they don’t have the same for many languages.

    Imagine TV where you could select your fav’e program in any language. I’m sure it would be cost prohibitive, though. Maybe as a fee based service…

    geez, I’m hoggin’ up the screen here.

  10. renato says:

    I learnt English at an English Course, having classes every day, in 1 year, when I was a teen, but until today I have been practicing it, making mistakes and corrections, this is forever. Anyway I took 2 years to learn alone French, Italian, Swedish. 6 months to learn Esperanto, and since 1990 I have been trying to learn German and Russian, and I didnt learn it at all.

  11. Polly says:

    Since 1990 to learn Russian and German but you picked up French, Italian, and Swedish in 2 years! Maybe some languages ARE harder to learn than others!
    Are you able to converse freely face to face with natives of those languages and understand what they’re saying? Even if you don’t understand a word, are you able to go and look it up later?

    My problem is that although I can understand what I read, the same words when spoken aloud are unrecognizable.
    In Addition, if I encounter a word I don’t know, I can’t look it up, because I can’t even parse it out of the sentence.

  12. Polly says:

    Minstrel Ayreon -
    I’m shy in English, so, naturally, it’s much worse in a foreign language. I haven’t found anything to overcome this stupid problem.

    I, also, finally learned to read Hebrew, if you don’t count the vowels ;) It was far more frustrating than Cyrillic, Korean, or even Arabic. Japanese Hiragana and Katakana were voluminous so the effort is comparable. Something about all those rectilinear letters. They all look alike.
    But, Greek gave me a problem, too. Weird cuz between Latin and Cyrillic I only had what? 5 new letters to learn? But, they just didn’t stick for some reason.

  13. Greek has come very easily to me…as for Hebrew, I’m learning with the Masoretic vowel points, so hopefully that’ll get me good and used to exactly how words are spelled and pronounced before I try to read any of it without vowels…

  14. renato says:

    Bonjour Polly! Yes, I can talk freely in French, Italian and Spanish, cause they are Romance languages, Swedish, is a little worse, cause in the city I live there isn’t any Swedish. But If I were in Rio I think I wouldn’t have problems, cause there are tourists and Conversational Courses.
    Und meine Deutsch ist sehr schlecht. Russian I can read some things and talk very slow very basic sentences.

  15. jdotjdot89 says:

    I’m so impressed that you know the word “Masoretic.” Do you know what it really means? Is it in common use in regard to Hebrew outside the Jewish world? I understand what you mean about vowels–though in my opinion, you can’t just LEARN to read Hebrew the way you could Spanish or even English to some degree…you really need a lot of context to figure it out. I’ve been studying Hebrew for 12 years and I still often have issues. The worst is when trying to figure out מילים לועזיים–foreign, or borrowed words.

  16. Robert says:

    Polly,

    I think you should be worried. The article is a mistake. It’s meant to be encouraging, I know. But its basically saying its OK that you will never be proficient just have fun.

    Bullocks. It’s not OK. It’s a big waste of time if you don’t become fluent. We all set out to become fluent. If it takes moving there, then we have to consider moving there. Why waste our time.

    I’m sorry guys…I don’t want to make anyone feel bad and quit. But the fact is, I’ve met 100′s of people with vague goals and having great fun, and they have never become fluent….and they never will be fluent….and they wasted all the effort that they put into becoming fluent.

    Personally, I’m learning Russian too. I’ve never been there.
    I don’t really appreciate the poster saying, I’m sure if you find a local language community…only post if you are talking about something that worked for you! Not some speculation.

    What I have to say, is from talking to Russians every single day, it doesn’t do any good, if they know English. They will use English. And you cannot learn nearly so well from someone telling you this word means this in english. It works much better when they tell you the meaning only using Russian.

    Sorry to rant. After 5 years of studying…a straight A student in college. Tested at a genius level on IQ tests, tested at a Genius level for learning languages by the U.S. military…studying every night, for about an hour. I can tell you I’m not fluent in Russian.

    That’s my story…thought I’d relate some truth. Doesn’t mean its the same for you. But I wish, there was a consensus and a common understanding of what it really takes.

    I will say this, I’m getting better…not going backwards. I can read and type in Russian fairly well. I cannot hold a basic conversation, but I know thousands of ‘one off’ phrases….I’m starting to hear about 20 -40% of what I hear on TV (I have 2 Russian tv channels).

    good luck

  17. Robert says:

    Sorry Polly,

    I hope I didn’t rant too hard, I guess I got frustrated. But here is my point, say you hear the word: обувайся. Well, then someone says, it means to put shoes on. But if they cannot speak English, they have to try to explain and say: обувь на ноги.

    That is so much clearer, обувь -> обувь на ноги

    What people do, who can speak English, is rob you of context…they aren’t doing it on purpose, but they will do it…over and over and over again.
    And maybe we do it to ourselves sometimes too.

  18. Polly says:

    Robert – Wow! Your comments are very…encouraging?!? No that’s not the right word, commiserating seems more appropos. :-) But, I appreciate them, nevertheless.
    It IS frustrating and I wonder if I could have learned several other languages with the effort I’ve invested in Russian. And I also thank you for your candid discussion about your own difficulties. I think I’m beginning to see a pattern, though. Russian seems to be a tough language. I know only one person who learned it as a 2nd language after High school and only because he LIVED in Russia for TWO Years. That’s more than I can commit!
    I also agree that to learn indefinitely without the goal of fluency does seem like a waste of time which is why I asked the question above. Even though language is fun, the real payoff is in communicating. I typically turn to a Russ-Eng dictionary when I don’t know a word, but your comments have prompted me to consider a monolingual Russian dict.

    Renato – Guten Tag and Good job! Yes, Romance languages come at a “discount” when you know one already. But, Swedish is definitely full price so to speak. You are obviously linguistically talented so this, too, tells me that Russian might be an unusually difficult language to learn.

  19. Edwin says:

    I went through the comments several times, and I don’t seem to find anyone answering Polly’s question directly.

    Am I correct in summarizing that so far no one has claimed to attain fluency in a foreign language without visiting or living in a country of that language?

  20. Miranda says:

    I may be only a sixteen year old language freak, but I feel that while becoming fluent is one good goal, you can go a long way with less.

    For instance, I want to (eventually) become fluent in Spanish, German, and Norwegian. I also want to have some use of Italian, Finnish, and whatever else I can get my hands on, for traveling purposes and the like. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Also, depending on your motives, being fluent might be the real waste of time. For Latin, as an example, I’ve only learned to read, as that’s all I’ll be doing with it.

    So far, I’ve taken 5 years of Spanish, 4 years of Latin, and 2 years of German at school. I’ve also achieved decent reading comprehension and basic conversational ability in Norwegian.

    Although I’m far from fluent in any of these languages, I was able to describe and locate all the items I needed in a Spanish Speaking supermarket, spend a day without any English in Germany, and absolutely astound some Norwegian tourists I met while in Greece. Of course, they may just have been frightened by my pronunciation. ;)

    However, I’ve employed languages at even more basic levels than this. On that same trip to Greece, I delighted some Greek guy by saying ‘cheers!’ in Greek at dinner. Later, I chatted with my hotel maid with some vocabulary I had more or less picked up en-route, and she ended up hugging me.

    Every time I meet someone from another country, whether they be a janitor, a lunch lady at my school, or the woman working behind the counters at the sub shop, I ask them the word for “Thank You” in their language. They absolutely beam when I remember it. The sub-shop woman tried to give me extra savings on my sandwich when I remembered “Thank You” in her minority Indian language two weeks later.

    Once, while vacationing in Curacao, a small island near Venezuela, I told a maid “Merry Christmas” in the local language, spoken only on three tiny islands. When I returned to my room, I found four maids waiting for me, absolutely thrilled that I was able to parrot that pathetic phrase.

    I wouldn’t call any of that a waste of time, but maybe I’m just young and idealistic. :)

  21. Polly says:

    You are idealistic. But, there’s nothing wrong with that. :-D

    Learning basic phrases like “Thank you” or “good morning” takes mere minutes and is far from a waste of time. In fact this generates a greater return on investment than most types of learning as your experiences listed above indicate. My personal experience has also shown me the same benefits.
    No, I’m not contradicting what I said im my last post. There’s a difference. Investing months and years INTENSELY studying a language only to come out not being able to converse IS good reason to suspect that one may be wasting their time.
    Now, if reading ancient or other texts is the specific goal, then conversation is, indeed, irrelevant. But, aside from that, language is for communicating with other living humans.

    I think it’s great that you are able to leverage what you know to connect to people in your travels. That is the purpose of (typical) language study – to try to meet people where they are, in every sense.

  22. Alexandra says:

    Hi Polly,
    I think that in this age of internet, cable television and globalization, it would be possible to achieve a fluent level in a foreign language without living in a country where the language is spoken. I mean, one could chat – both orally and in written form – with native speakers on the internet for hours at a time, and watch tv & listen to the radio in that language. But I do agree with you and others that to be able to get really good at a language you need not only to be interested but also to have a practical purpose for the language. If you don’t use it at all outside of a classroom for example, you’ll never achieve anything close to fluency.

    And Miranda, I TOTALLY agree with you that learning basic words & expressions in a certain language goes a long way. It shoes you are interested in their culture and that you care. Two very good things to communicate when you are in a foreign country ;)

  23. Mike G. says:

    I just stumbled upon this website completely on accident, but I thought I might contribute briefly by saying that my French teacher from college who also studied Italian, became fluent in Spanish by working at a Mexican restaurant in Boston. That is what it is, I suppose, just wanted to throw it out there.

    I agree with those who have pointed out the wealth of materials being shot at us from overseas via this magnificent Internet thingamajig.

    In addition, and by golly I don’t want to put down any potential polyglots, but I find most people don’t know how to study a language, especially when the goal is communication. If that is one’s goal then it is communication, i.e. oral/aural stuff, that must be practiced. Often it’s easier to simply read, because we learn to read fairly easily. But like in music, it’s pointless to “practice” your favorite part of the piece over and over; that brings temporary happiness, but when you get to the performance and haven’t practiced the really tough sections…

  24. Mike G. says:

    To complete my second paragraph:

    …are a good thing, potentially bringing us to levels of fluency that previous generations were not so lucky to enjoy.

    :-)

  25. James says:

    “But its basically saying its OK that you will never be proficient just have fun”

    If we are both talking about the article Simon originally referenced (that´s a nice bit of USA english for ya´ll) that´s not what it says at all. Its point (which is correct) is that language learning doesn´t stop with certificates. Certificates don´t mean much. Anyway fluency is such a hard concept: it depends on your age (fluent for a 3 year old is not the same as for a 23 year old) and the context. Take my Spanish for example. In one sense it is “fluent”: I live in Chile, teach university level courses in Spanish and can read and understand the literary language as well as understand the taxi drivers (normally). but i feel very far from fluent: there are still errors in my written Spanish, I still make bizarre mistakes on occasion and some days I can´t understand normal conversation (though admittedly only when i am really tired, and anyway chilean spanish is pretty much the hardest to understand as it has so much slang and the enunciation is awful). I have actully only been learning the language just over 2 years, but of that with only 3 months of full time study in Spain in 2004, then a lengthy period in the USA and UK 2005-Aug 2006 where I used my spanish very little.

    So constant and neverending is right, and a good reminder for me.

    James

  26. john says:

    I am just learning japanese and plan on learning chinese, i would also say because i watch a huge amount of foreign films. I plan to use dvd’s as testing material, if i can understand what they are saying in foreign movies without using subtitles and then rewind and view the subtitles to see if im correct although in minor cases
    they do alter dialogue of subtitles, its still a good proving ground.
    I recommend finding pimsleurs language torrents on the web as each mp3 has about 1/2 hour of language training. The only thing
    that i do have a distaste for and am going to develope on my own, is that most language courses are repeate and say instead of learning proper usage and being able to adapt.
    pimsleurs stuff is still great as they slow the words down and enunciate, highly recommend finding a torrent if your trying to learn, each course has about 30 mp3s and most come in courses of 3 sets.