How Much Time Is It Realistic to Learn a Language in?

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There are many guesses and people suggesting you can learn a language in a night, a week or similar short periods of time. Let’s be realistic for a bit. Let’s look at some data and see what it can tell us for if people in general need a certain time to learn the language, let’s not assume that it can be done way faster with some magical woodoo-learning methods. I was checking out the ILA France language lists page and found the following estimates for learning French to levels of the European Common Languages Framework which I have already described. Here’s the time needed to achieve each level from the start in French according to them:

A1 – 60 hours
A2 – 160 hours
B1 – 310 hours
B2 – 490 hours
C1 – 690 hours
C2 – 890 hours

That is, about 900 hours and you are pretty much fluent in French by their standards. How much is that? That is 37 full 24 hour days. It is more reasonable to think that a person would study a language for three hours a day so it would take him around eight times that which is almost 10 months. If you double it to six hours a day, you can do it in 5 months. From my experience, it is very hard to practice the language more than that (and even that) in any given day, so if these estimates are any good, it is achievable and maybe realistic, granted you are living in a French-speaking country, to become fluent in half a year or so. If you are only aiming for B2 (B2 is pretty communicative) and you’re good, you can achieve it in 3 months.

By comparison, it takes you only 60 hours to get the very basics of it (A1) which you could do in about two weeks of practicing assuming you do it with a similar intensity. Not bad, 60 hours, is it? You could learn the basics of 15 languages at the same time it takes you to learn one to fluency! That explains it how there are people who can seemingly communicate in many languages. I, in fact, would choose to do so over the “fluent in one” thing unless I really needed that one.

I checked this for my 6 months Greek challenge and I am aiming at B2 (thus my standards for fluency are way lower than than  have assumed in this article). I’d need about 490 hours if Greek could be equated to French and this makes it 490 / 6*30 or about 2.75 hours a day. I’m doing way less during my first few months so it will probably be more like 4 to 5 hours when I am in Greece. I believe that this number is achievable and reasonable in terms of my challenge, although challenging, which is what I am aiming for in the first place. I also know some tips and tricks from my previous experience so maybe that will reduce my workload.

How reliable is this data? Well, Wikipedia also cites this site:

Deutsche Welle (sponsored by the German government) suggests A-1 is reached with about 75 hours of German study. A-2.1 about 150 hours. A-2.2 about 225 hours. B 1.1 about 300 hours. B 1.2 about 400 hours.

Kind of similar numbers, at least in the beginning. Also it can be argued that German is harder than French (for example due to noun genders) – I know how tricky it is to assert something like that – so it takes more time to learn it. It still is relying on authority for they do not specify explicitly on the pages how they got the data but the fact that both of these institutions seem to have similar numbers and that they are both respectable institutions (funded by the government and doing research), I would tend to believe that they are indeed believable at least to some extent.

Thus I could say that fluency in 6 months is possible if you really try very very hard. A year is more likely and you can be more laid-back and follow your natural style, although it still is quite a challenge for studying at least 3 hours a day every day is not that easy. Fluency in shorter periods is unrealistic according to the data unless you are aiming for lower levels of fluency (like me, yet I still have six months… well, I never told you I wasn’t lazy). Listen to the data or not, that’s your choice.

P.S. To get some decent practice, try learning by reading books from InterlinearBooks.com

P.P. S. Why should you learn Spanish? Read on Academic Help.

P.P.P.S. If you’re interested in verb conjugation, try out our Cooljugator – works in many languages, and helps you learn them.

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14 Comments


  1. ·

    I agree that ‘easier’ languages (ie, ones similar to langs you already know) can get you to at least a basic fluency in 6 months… like you said it’d be hard, but possible (and a very fun challenge to give yourself).

    It’s been researched, however, that 10,000 hours of practice would make you an ‘expert’ in something… I’m surprised that C2 fluency isn’t closer to that number (not like I’m complaining, of course. ;) )


  2. ·

    @Fiona Yeah, I’ve heard of that thing too. The first place I heard about this was from the copywriter Gary Halbert who said that thing in one of his letters (my roommate was once very much into reading them so I tried some too). Then years after that, it was popularized in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

    I haven’t really seen any scientific research backing it and I could see how it could not be true for things such as art or whatnot. I have also been secretly assuming this to be true but maybe it’s just a myth (like the tongue-map which we learned at school). Who knows…


  3. ·

    @Fiona Yeah, I’ve heard of that thing too. The first place I heard about this was from the copywriter Gary Halbert who said that thing in one of his letters (my roommate was once very much into reading them so I tried some too). Then years after that, it was popularized in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

    I haven’t really seen any scientific research backing it and I could see how it could not be true for things such as art or whatnot. I have also been secretly assuming this to be true but maybe it’s just a myth (like the tongue-map which we learned at school). Who knows…

  4. Jean-Noël
    ·

    Regarding how long it can take to learn a foreign language there’s also the approximate learning expectations compiled by the FSI; though they’re based on English speakers.
    http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Language_Learning_Difficulty_for_English_Speakers

    As far as scientific research into expertise goes I’ve read “Expert Performance: Its Structure and Acquisition” which is pretty long but very interesting.
    http://mit.edu/6.969/www/readings/expertise.pdf

    Though I don’t think that one needs to be an expert to achieve C2 fluency, after all there’s still a great deal more that one could learn even after fluency.


  5. ·

    “I, in fact, would choose to do so over the ‘fluent in one’ thing unless I really needed that one.” And, honestly, when do you really need that one? There are very few instances when perfection is called for: you’re a professional translator/interpreter, you’re an international spy, you’re obsessive compulsive, you’re married to someone from another country, or you’ve set yourself a personal challenge. Outside of those scenarios, it’s the law of diminishing returns: there isn’t much marginal gain from the added marginal cost of going beyond the level of comfortably conversant. I’d use that extra energy and learn another tongue altogether, thus expanding my powers faster than if I had stuck with only one language.

    This is the debate between generalists and specialists: whether it is better to spend your time going broad or going deep. I’m a utility-maximizing generalist, somewhat in awe of those who can stick it out to become specialists.


  6. ·

    @ Jean-Noël That seems very informative, thanks. I’ll have a look into both of these. I have already looked into the FSI one and although similar, it doesn’t seem reasonable to me in some places. For example, look at this: Polish 1100 hours, Russian 2200 hours. It so happens that I am acquainted with both of these. The only really big difference between them is the alphabet. You sure as hell don’t need 1100 hours only to learn the alphabet…

    @J I completely agree with you and I don’t think there’s much to add.

  7. Krampusz
    ·

    I seriously doubt that doing 3 h instead of 1 h per day will speed up your progress threefold. Your brain needs rest time to assimilate the information.


  8. ·

    Krampusz, that’s another good point. I just assumed a number of hours and I have not deliberated over the psychological factors of this at all. If we assume that your assertion is right (which it seems to be), then that means it would take even more time.

  9. Victor
    ·

    Interesting article. Many thanks.
    I think that important thing for those who get interested in learning Russian is to find a good place in the net. I like very much “language101”
    http://learn-russian.language101.com/lesson/?id=30078025
    From the Russian alphabet, the basic words to audio lessons, video lessons, word by word, frase by frase, very interesting approach to learning using popular Russian songs. A lot of great tips for learner.

  10. Marcin
    ·

    Hey, it really depends what do you mean by fluency. I’ve studied English very very veeeery hard on my own for 11 months from the scratch and don’t consider myself to be fluent. Od course, as you can see, I can read and write pretty well (except tons of grammar errors which is inescapable at the beginnig) but in my opinion this isn’t the fluency. I’m able to watch documentaries on BBC, Discovery and so on, read blogs like this one and even become a part of conversation sometimes but for me it’s jus a beginning of a true learning process. I estimate my English level at around B2 and it took me over 1200 hours of learning. Unfortunatelly I have no contact with live native speakers and that could be the factor that restricts my progress. Greetings from Poland.

  11. deepak singh
    ·

    the way you have written your comment speaks a lot about the hard work you have put if your effort to learn English ………well done !!!!!!!!

  12. Marcin
    ·

    Thank you very much. I really appreciate these encouraging words. :)
    To be onest I don’t regret this time I’ve spent. English nowadays is really a window on the world and I’m slowly starting to view through this window. What’s more I’m going to start learning Italian next week. But English is still No.1 on the list of my goals. Learning is really fun at some point. Instead of learning you just start using the language. Greetings! :)

  13. matt
    ·

    For only 11 months your writing is very impressive, congratulations.

  14. Specus
    ·

    Of course it will be. Once you get a solid basis in any language then its just improving upon that. There is this barrier many people are not aware of – it has to do with the grammar of the language – i.e constructing grammatically correct sentences in the foreign language and still being able to say what you would (want) in your own native language (the language you form your thoughts in). Rereading that above again makes me think how I didn’t express my thoughts in english as I would have in my native language. Though I am still hoping that english speakers will understand what I meant. (this is the next barrier foreign language students need to cross).

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