Many people dream of being able to converse fluently in at least one other language. For plenty of cultures, being native in a language other than your mother tongue is seen as an attractive quality and an indication of intelligence. But how long does it really take to learn a language?
The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) categorises global languages into four tiers of difficulty for native English speakers, from Category 1 (the easiest) to Category 4 (the most challenging). The timelines stated below are based on what the FSI observes as the average length of time to achieve proficiency. Note that the list below is far from exhaustive!
Category 1 Languages (600-750 hours): Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish
Category 2 Languages (900 class hours): German, Indonesian, Swahili
Category 3 Languages (1,100 class hours): Albanian, Czech, Greek, Hindi, Russian, Thai, Urdu, Vietnamese
Category 4 Languages (2,200 class hours): Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Japanese, Korean
By examining the different categories, it’s clear how the time required to learn a new language can be very dependent on what the language is. If a student were to put aside one hour a day to learn a Category 1 language, it could take one and a half to two years to reach fluency. A Category 4 language, however, could take approximately six years for a learner to continue at the same pace of one hour a day.
The Foreign Service Institute also identifies proficiency on a scale of 1 to 5 (The FSI Scale, or Interagency Language Roundtable – ILR), which can help learners to determine their level of fluency:
- Elementary Proficiency: The person can express routine travel needs and maintain courtesy in conversation.
- Limited Working Proficiency: The person can satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
- Minimum Professional Proficiency: The person can speak the language with sufficient vocabulary and structural accuracy to engage in most informal and formal conversations.
- Full Professional Proficiency: The person can speak the language fluently and accurately.
- Native or Bilingual Proficiency: The person’s proficiency is equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.
Learners at levels 1 and 2 are able to have simple conversations, such as asking for directions or ordering in a restaurant. They are not usually able to form sentences with tenses other than the present and will take translation literally (meaning that metaphors, colloquial terms and slang may not be understood).
Once graduating to levels 3 and 4, learners can normally use a much wider range of vocabulary and sentence structures and join in most discussions, including science and politics. Learners have a solid understanding of all the language patterns.
Upon reaching level 5, learners not only speak as well as a native speaker but can also understand the dialects and cultural differences of the language.
Language categories and levels aside, the time required to learn a new language can completely depend on other factors, including the style of learning (e.g. self-study, teacher-led study or a combination); the student’s natural linguistic ability; the time dedicated to learning and the actual language itself. Are you embarking on the journey to learn a new language?