Learning a foreign language takes about one year if you are taking an intensive language learning course. Now, be aware that one year is a very rough estimate for language learning—some people claim to have reached basic proficiency in 3-4 months, whereas others feel that becoming an advanced speaker is a life-long journey! The fact is that there are many factors that influence how long it takes to learn a language. In this post, we identify 7 factors that should help you estimate how long it will take to achieve your language learning goals. We’ll also give you some tips related to language learning attitudes, tools, and techniques that will show you how to learn a language most efficiently. Ready to dig in? Let’s go!
Table of Contents
What are the factors that affect the language learning process?
There are many factors that affect how long it takes to learn a language. Here’s a quick overview of 7 that we think are worth knowing about.
Now that we have an idea of what affects the time it takes to learn a new language, let’s explore these concepts in a bit more detail!
1. Foreign language choice
Foreign language choice can have a major effect on how long it takes to learn a language. In principle, if the language you choose to learn is similar to your native language or another one you know, it will be easier and take less time to acquire. On the other hand, if the language you are learning is different, it will likely be harder, and ultimately take more time to master.
Let’s look at an example. Say you already know Spanish and you choose to learn a closely related language like Italian. Because they are so similar, you’re likely to already know a lot of words and grammar, and will just need to put in some time to sort out the differences between the two. On the other hand, if you’re learning a completely different language, like an English speaker learning Arabic, then you will need to learn most of it from scratch: new sounds, new words, new ways of structuring your sentences, and probably even a new writing system! How do you know which languages are easier or harder to learn? Well, if you’re an English speaker, head to our posts on the easiest and hardest languages to learn to find out! You can apply the same logic to other languages as well. For more on that, check out what we have to say about how the languages you know influence the languages you’re learning.
Takeaway: Languages similar to yours are typically faster to learn; dissimilar languages will require considerably more time.
2. Desired language proficiency
Your desired language proficiency will determine how much time you need to put into language learning. Lower levels of language proficiency (A1, A2) can be achieved quickly, while advanced proficiency (C2) can take years. In a study done with adolescents learning English as a second language in school, basic conversation skills were achieved within one year of study, oral proficiency in 3-5 years, and advanced academic proficiency in 4-7 years.
The length of time required to learn a language also depends a lot on your goals. If you just want to travel to a foreign country and not feel completely lost while reading signs, asking for directions, or ordering food, then a few months of study will probably do. However, if you want to become an interpreter for the UN or pursue a Master’s degree in the target language, you may need years of intensive study to achieve the required proficiency.
Luckily, there is a big spectrum in between these two—maybe you want to read your favorite author in their native tongue, or have casual conversations with some new friends or family and not feel completely left out of the inside jokes. Whatever your objective, establishing clear and realistic goals is important when learning a language. Note that those goals can change over time as you progress on your language learning journey. Once you reach a milestone, perhaps you’ll want to move on to the next challenge—there is always something new to learn!
Takeaway: Lower levels of proficiency are attained quicker than higher levels of proficiency. You determine how far you want to go with your new language.
3. Background of the student
A student’s background can also influence how long it takes to learn a language. There are two main background factors that affect language learning: the age of the student when they begin learning the language, and whether the student already speaks or has studied a second language. Younger students and those with previous language learning experience tend to learn language more quickly, though this doesn’t mean that older or inexperienced students can’t learn language effectively—it is never too late to start! Researchers think that children tend to learn language more easily than adults because a developing brain “absorbs” language better than a mature brain. Furthermore, brain development continues well into our teenage years, which means that even if you decide to start learning a new language in high school, you will probably have an easier time than an older student would. So, if you are a younger student, take advantage of this gift and start your language studies today!
Language learning experience and multilingualism can also affect the time it takes to learn a new language. More experienced students tend to be aware of the differences among the languages they already know, and have quite a bit of knowledge of how language learning works. This helps them pick up new languages more quickly, especially if the new language is similar to one they already know (remember Factor #1?).
Takeaway: Being younger and speaking multiple languages can help accelerate the language learning process.
4. Mindset, attitude, and motivation of the student
A student’s mindset, attitude, and motivation can all affect the time it takes to learn a language. Mindset and attitude essentially refer to how you see and interact with the world around you. Students who approach language learning with a positive mindset and attitude tend to be more successful achieving their goals. Attitude and motivation have to do with how willing you are to start and keep learning another language. Motivation can be external or internal, and is also a determining factor in the time it takes to achieve language learning goals.
Learning a new language is a challenge, plain and simple. Your mindset, attitude, and motivation can make the difference between success and failure when learning a new language. Students who view challenges as opportunities to grow tend to have considerable success. Unfortunately, many students become discouraged and end up thinking things like, “I am just bad at languages,” or “it’s just too hard.” Don’t let this happen! Learning a language is a challenge for everyone, especially at first. Stick with it, stay positive, and you will eventually achieve success!
Motivation is key for meeting your learning goals. Motivation can be internal (maybe you dream of living in Japan and love the language, so you study day and night) or it can be external (maybe your family just moved to a new country and you need to learn the language for school, work, or just to buy groceries). Either way, motivation combined with a positive mindset and attitude will help you achieve the consistency needed to meet your language goals!
Takeaway: A positive attitude and mindset can help motivate you to achieve your language learning goals.
5. Techniques of language learning
Language learning techniques, which are the method or strategies you use to learn a language, can have a big effect on how long it takes to learn a language. Broadly speaking, language learning strategies tend to be categorized by whether they involve implicit or explicit learning. Implicit learning is learning that happens without the learner even being aware they are learning through exposure to a new language. Explicit learning is intentional learning, like studying in a language classroom. There are many ways to learn a language, and there isn’t necessarily one perfect approach. A combination of both implicit and explicit language learning techniques is usually the way to go.
A simple example of implicit language learning is immersion. Let’s say that you travel to Paris for a summer abroad and know basically no French. By being in an environment that is fully immersive, you will start picking up the “rules” of language without knowing it. Many language teaching approaches try to emulate this experience in the classroom. While this is a great way to learn language, and is similar to how children learn their first language, it can be intimidating for some. What’s more, it may require a lot of time to reach those “aha” moments, which are actually examples of implicitly-learned knowledge becoming explicit!
On the other side of the spectrum, we have explicit learning. Explicit learning is often what you find in a language textbook: grammatical rules, vocabulary with translations, etc. While most of us have experienced language learning in this way, we also find that there is a disconnect between knowing a rule and actually applying it in casual conversation. Many students take years of language classes and know these rules, but still feel like they cannot communicate naturally. So how do you avoid this?
Finding a balance between implicit and explicit learning could be your golden ticket to achieving positive results and accelerating your language learning progress. An explicit approach will help you understand the rules of a language, while an implicit approach will help you start internalizing these rules so they can be applied naturally.
Takeaway: Combine implicit and explicit learning strategies to maximize the effectiveness of your language learning!
Check out our video “Can you learn a language without trying?” for more on implicit and explicit learning.
6. Sources and tools for language learning
The time it takes for you to learn a language can also be affected by the sources and tools you use. By sources and tools, we mean where your language learning input comes from, what form it takes, and how you interact with it. Different sources and tools can be used for either active or passive language learning (or both).
In a nutshell, passive learning includes activities like reading or listening, and active learning includes activities like speaking or writing. For example, listening to music is a passive way to improve listening skills. But what happens if you also read the lyrics and sing along? You’re now participating in both passive (listening and reading) and active (singing) learning. Good language learning practices combine a wide variety of sources that target different skills and promote active learning and passive approaches, and there are many ways to achieve this.
Tools like the Mango app are designed based on these principles, and incorporate a variety of active learning strategies in their content and approach. By using the correct tools and sources, you can definitely speed up your learning!
Takeaway: To speed up language learning, use active learning strategies with whatever tool you are using to learn. Tools like Mango are already designed with this concept in mind.
Want to know some tips and tricks on active learning strategies? Check out this video: “What is the Fluency Illusion?”
7. Time dedicated to learning languages
The time you dedicate to language learning is another factor affecting how long it can take to achieve your language learning goals. The more time you spend studying, practicing, and immersing yourself in the language, the more input you will receive. More exposure to language should, in theory, speed up the language learning process because you have more opportunities to learn new vocabulary and grammar! But there are limitations to this: Some aspects of language learning just take time (second language pronunciation takes a long time to develop, for example). Furthermore, how effectively you spend your time can either speed up or slow down the language learning process.
Now, here’s the big question! How much time do I need to dedicate to learning a new language? Based on the factors already discussed, here is a simple breakdown:
According to the FSI (Foreign Service Institute), for an “easy” language like Spanish, you will need approximately 600 hours to reach a comfortable level of proficiency in 24 weeks. That means that you would need roughly 5 hours of daily study, 5 days a week to complete those 600 hours.
Now, realistically, do you have 5 hours every day to dedicate to language learning? Unless you are taking an intensive course, you probably don’t. But do you have more than 24 weeks to learn a language? Hopefully you do. If that’s the case, then setting a realistic time frame is key! Even if you work for one hour a day or less, you can achieve a lot as long as you are consistent and use your time effectively.
In this case, the best approach is to practice for short periods of time, perhaps even just 20 minutes a day—it’s better to do short lessons on a consistent basis than trying to cram 8 hours of study into your day off. Using an app like Mango helps you set and maintain realistic goals, even if that is just two lessons a day while you wait for the bus.
Don’t forget that how you use your language learning time is almost as important as how much time you spend learning. It is often better to work for short periods of time doing a variety of activities as opposed to spending long periods on repetitive drills. For example, it is better to learn in short intervals using a series of different tasks than to spend hours memorizing conjugations or doing flash cards. Some short activities include reviewing a vocab list of words you tend to forget, watching a short video on a topic you’re interested in, writing a journal entry, or chatting with your tutor or friend in the target language.
Takeaway: While spending more time can help accelerate the process, consistency and effective use of time are the key to unlocking the secrets of a new language!
What accelerates the language learning process?
The amount of input you receive in the target language can greatly accelerate the language learning process. This is because greater exposure to input increases the opportunities you’ll have to pick up on new words, grammatical patterns, and pronunciation. In turn, this could lead to faster language development.
Caveat: According to some researchers, there is really no way to accelerate the cognitive process of language acquisition. Language learning is by nature a slow process that occurs in stages. However, without lots of input from the target language, you will not be able to achieve the desired results. Focus on input rather than accelerating the process. Here are some strategies to increase your exposure and create opportunities to use the language:
Be consistent and be patient, it will pay off quicker than you think!
And, if you’re wondering why you’re “not yet as fluent as you want to be,” check out our video!
Can I learn a language fast by myself?
Yes, you can learn a language fast by yourself—to an extent. There are many parts of a language you can learn on your own, such as grammar rules, vocabulary, listening skills (e.g., videos and music), and much more. Nowadays, with all the resources on the internet, you can achieve a lot on your own. And if your goal is to read, write, watch and listen, then by all means go for it! However, if your goal is to converse with native speakers…well, you can’t bake a cake by just reading a cookbook. You have to get your hands in the flour and eggs to get it done! What I mean is that, yes, you can learn many of the components of language on your own, but you really need to interact with native speakers to truly experience a language and culture.
Can you learn a language quickly with a course?
Yes, you can learn a language quickly with a course if it is intensive and takes a varied approach that targets all the major language skills. In fact, you can achieve many things in a language course. Language courses are safe spaces where you know your peers are in the same boat, and where you have a teacher to guide you and encourage you to always be better. Furthermore, having an experienced instructor around to answer questions can really speed up the learning process when it comes to the difficult aspects of the language. However, a language class is very different from being out there in the wild, so if your goal is to feel confident out in the world, then you have to get out there and talk to people. But having those building blocks from class will sure make the experience less intimidating and more enjoyable.
Can you learn a language quickly with tools and applications?
Yes, you can learn a language quickly with applications. The advantage of using an app is that you can learn at your own pace without the constraints of something like a language class or tutoring session. The Mango app is great for this. It contains short, manageable lessons, and even provides you with auto-reminders to keep your learning consistent. It also helps accelerate language learning by providing rich input in the language. Each lesson contains new words, phrases, and structures, and teaches you how to put those words and structures into action with immediate feedback. What’s more, the Mango app has lots of speaking prompts and a pronunciation guide to help you master the sounds of the language. All of these features provide a springboard to help you get started with and maintain your language skills so that you can feel confident when you go out into the wild and start engaging with native speakers. Check out the Mango app for yourself and start learning!
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