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So how long does it take to achieve fluency in a second language?

From Arabic to Zulu, languages differ in how hard they are to learn. This handy guide will help you understand the challenge that awaits.

logo    25 October 2018

If I want to be fluent, how long will I need to study a language for?

This is a question we get asked a lot and can be a bit like asking "how long is a piece of string?" Well it all depends. There are a great deal of factors which will determine how quickly you'll achieve fluency in a foreign language. That being said, some languages have a reputation for being harder than others. Read on to find out if you've gone with the easy option or if challenges lie ahead!

Have you already learned a second language?

This is a fairly big factor in the overall equation. If you're familiar with some of the benefits of studying languages, you will know that being bilingual gives you a significant head start over monolingual people when it comes to picking up other languages.

The cognitive skills, improved memory and understanding of syntax developed from having already become fluent in one foreign language will supercharge your efforts when it comes to learning another. Further on we'll talk about general guide lines in terms of hours of study, however if you've already achieved native fluency in one language you can generally expect to pick up another in less than the suggested time.

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Regular study is the key to success.

It almost goes without saying that the single biggest factor in determining how long it will take you to learn a language is how often you are prepared to study. Languages are not so different from any other skill in that regular practice is the key to achieving your goals in an acceptable time frame.

So how often should you study and how long should you study for? In our view the fist of these questions is the most important and the easiest to answer - try and fit in some study time everyday. There is a large volume of evidence to show that high frequency and shorter study sessions are far more productive when learning new material than studying for hours at a time. Allocating even a small amount of time to language study each day will allow you to build momentum and ultimately retain in your long term memory more of what you read, hear, say or write.

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Match the learning method to the time available

In an ideal world you might study for between 30 - 45 minutes at most in any one study session. Evidence shows that much beyond this amount of time results in lower concentration levels and a fall in the amount of knowledge retained. Many of us who lead increasingly busy lives however might find it difficult to commit to this amount of time on a daily basis, which makes it essential as a language learner to have a range of learning tools at your disposal which fit the time you have available.

Everybody wants to learn a language in the shortest amount of time, so to hit your goal of studying each day make sure you take advantage of the vast number of apps and online resources which allow you to learn on the go and at short notice. Smart-phone learning apps are ideal as vocabulary building tools and for fitting in short bursts of study into gaps of spare time which would otherwise be wasted. Equally online radio services such as tunein are a great way to tap into another language wherever you happen to be.

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Total hours of study - the rough guide.

Assuming you can commit to learning on a regular basis how long on average does it take to learn a foreign language as a native English speaker? Our guidance on this is largely driven by data from the US Foreign Service Institute who have taught foreign languages for over half a century to largely English native speakers. The estimated study time shown in the table below is based upon achieving level 3 in speaking and reading on the Inter Agency Language Round-table Scale - approximately equal to level C1 under the Common European Framework of References for Languages. This level represents an advanced level of fluency whereby you should be able to understand and respond to virtually all of what you hear or read and be able to express yourself fluently and spontaneously.

The estimated time for each language should only be taken as a guide. We all learn in different ways and at different speeds so the time will naturally vary from person to person. We also feel that the rapid advances in the way people can learn a language and the ease of access to online learning materials and resources will have slightly reduced these times for all learners.

Language
Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish
German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, Swahili
Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hausa, 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
Arabic, Chinese – Cantonese, Chinese – Mandarin, Japanese, Korean
Hours of Study
(600-750 class hours)
(900 - 1000 class hours)
(1000 - 1100 class hours)
(2000 - 2200 class hours)

Being a romantic is easy.

Broadly speaking the major romance languages of French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian are easier for native English speakers to learn. The reasons for this largely relate to how English developed over time. French, for example, has had a significant impact on the development of the English language as we know it. The coronation of William the Conqueror as the first Norman king of England in 1066 led to a large number of French words making their way into the English language. It's estimated that up to 30% of English words are derived from French.

When learning a romance language, English speakers also benefit from the considerable influence of Latin on the English language. As all romance languages have their roots in Latin there are significant similarities in vocabulary in the form of cognates - words that sound the same and have the same meanings.

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If you enjoy a challenge.

From one extreme to another, Japanese, Arabic, Chinese and Korean are considered to be the hardest languages to learn for English speakers. The differences between English and these languages are significant. All of these languages contain thousands of characters and, whilst as strikingly beautiful and mystifying as their countries of origin, they do not have any similarities with English and pose a unique challenge for learners.

Students of Chinese will need to become familiar with the tonal nature of the language where meaning can change depending on the tone of the word. Equally difficult are the unique and complex writing systems of Arabic and Japanese. Whilst not for the faint hearted, these languages offer insight into cultures which are radically different from the western world, which is no doubt part of their appeal for native English speakers.

japanese street

Whichever language you choose - go for it!

There is no wrong choice. Stick to your goals and you will get there. All languages are beautiful in their own way and offer every learner a unique insight into a different culture.

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