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How Long It Takes to Learn a New Language

Updated on September 8, 2012

Linguistic experts generally agree that the best time to acquire a second language is during the early years of childhood development, from birth to age six. The process of learning a foreign language becomes much more difficult when we reach adulthood.

In today's global society, knowing a second or third language is rapidly becoming a requirement for career advancement and social interaction. Foreign language learning is also a growth industry. Flipping through a magazine or watching late-night television, we can see numerous companies offering books, DVDs, audio programs, and computer software that guarantee rapid language results using their proprietary approaches.

While these rapid learning systems may help with some basic travel vocabulary and phrases, the research shows that language learning is a marathon, not a sprint. How long it takes to learn a new language depends on the learner's ability, dedication, learning environment, desired proficiency level, and - perhaps most importantly - their choice of language.

FSI Language Difficulty Rankings

Class Hours Required
Mandarin Chinese
Source: National Virtual Translation Center, "Languages of the World"

Some Languages Are Less Difficult Than Others

The U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute (FSI) offers intensive training courses in 70 languages to Foreign Service Officers and other government employees. They group their language offerings into three categories:

  • Category I: Languages closely related to English
  • Category II: Category II: Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
  • Category III: Languages which are quite difficult for native English speakers

The target fluency level of these courses is General Professional Proficiency, level 3 on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale of 0-5. At this level, learners are able to converse effectively in professional and social settings, read news items or general correspondence, committing only infrequent errors in grammar or comprehension.

The number of class hours required to reach general professional proficiency in speaking and reading ranges from 575 for the easiest languages to 2,200 for the most difficult. At the pace of a college-level language course offering 5 hours of class time per week totaling 180 hours per year, it would take three to four years to become proficient in Spanish or French, six years to become proficient in Russian or Farsi, and twelve years to be proficient in Arabic or Japanese.

Of course, the time spent learning a language is only one of the factors affecting proficiency. While one's innate learning ability does have a limited role, study methods and learning strategies are critical in training the brain to absorb and retain a new language.

Multilingual wafer ingredients
Multilingual wafer ingredients | Source

This Is Your Brain On Language

How Do We Learn Foreign Languages, Anyway?

Modern theories about second-language acquisition fall into one of three general categories: the cognitive approach, the lingiustic approach, and the sociocultural approach.

Cognitive Approach

Proponents of the cognitive approach study language learning as part of the more general mental processes involved in all types of learning. The cognitive approach does not view learning a language to be a different process from memorizing facts for a history test or learning a musical instrument. According to the computational model of this approach of these forms of learning can be demonstrated as following the same pattern, as new information is taken in to short-term memory, stored in long-term memory, and finally synthesized by the learner as output.

Linguistic Approach

On the other hand, the linguistic approach to foreign language learning views language acquisition as an inherently different process from other forms of learning. One of the leading hypotheses in this approach is Noam Chomsky's concept of Universal Grammar, which proposes that the rules of language are essentially hard-wired in the human mind as a set of parameters that can be switched on or off. According to this hypothesis, when a learner is going from a language with gendered nouns to a language with gender-neutral nouns, for example, she is not learning a new rule from scratch but merely flipping one of these pre-existing mental switches.

Sociocultural Approach

The sociocultural approach to the study of foreign language learning goes beyond the individual mental processes of the learner and examines the social and cultural context in which language itself has formed. In this approach, based on the writings of early 20th Century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, first language is learned initially as a tool for social interaction and understanding cultural artifacts. This tool then shapes how our brains process internal thought, producing our "inner voice." When learning a second language, the brain must recreate this process of internalizing a culturally-created tool, except this time with the baggage of having to learn explicit rules and verb conjugations. In this theory, the real language learning mainly takes place outside the classroom.

None of these approaches are considered to be an all-encompassing theory explaining how second languages are acquired, as they all focus on narrow aspects of language learning. Proponents of the varying approaches continue to debate over which of these best explains how we learn language. What researchers can all agree on, however, is the fact that there is tremendous variation among second language learners in the rate at which the learn and the proficiency level they achieve.

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Language Aptitude And Learning Strategies

There are a number of factors that affect the time it takes to learn a new language and the learner's proficiency level. Some of these are beyond the learner's control, such as age and language aptitude. Other factors such as choice of learning strategies, the student's motivation level, and the ability to control anxiety have a strong impact on the ability to learn a new language.

Although language aptitude tests are not without controversy, these are routinely used by high schools and universities to place students in language courses. They are also used by the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies to screen candidates for positions as linguists, interpreters, and other jobs that require fluency in a foreign language.

These tests do not test the applicant's current knowledge of a particular foreign language, but instead use abstract questions to gauge his or her ability to deduce sentence structure, recognize patterns in word meanings, or pick up subtle changes in accent stress. Critics of these tests argue that by focusing purely on functions of the brain, they fail to address social, cultural, and other factors that affect language learning in the real world.

Individual motivation is one of the real-world factors that contribute to success or failure in learning a language. Although it seems obvious, it is also backed by research that students motivated by an internal desire to learn a new language will have more success than those motivated by grades or other external rewards.

Anxiety is another factor that can inhibit language learning - particularly the fear of making mistakes in spoken conversation. While it seems natural for anyone to want to avoid mistakes, some research into second language acquisition has found that errors are an integral part of the language learning process. In the intermediate stage of language learning, the learner develops a hybrid of their native language and the target language known to linguists as interlanguage. This interlanguage has its own unique set of grammatical and pronunciation rules that is based in both languages, though at this stage misunderstanding of these rules can lead the student to create phrases that don't exist in either language. Refining of this interlanguage over time will bring the student's proficiency closer to the target language.

Finally, the use of learning strategies and communicative methods can strengthen a language learner's ability to become proficient in the target language. Traditional classroom teaching methods focusing on grammar, verb conjugation, and vocabulary lists have been shown not to be effective in producing students with fluent language ability. Communicative teaching methods focus on interaction and student-centered activities to teach language. In a classroom setting, this can include games, group activities, and role-play. For an individual learner, self-directed learning strategies such as mnemonic devices or word substitutions can improve confidence and, ultimately, competence in the second language.

There are no shortcuts in learning a new language. It is a marathon task, even with high motivation, the latest video teaching tools, and copious use of self-directed strategies. The length of time it will take depends on many factors, but the reward of fluency in another language is well worth the effort.


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    • Spongy0llama profile image

      Jake Brannen 5 years ago from Canada

      I feel that age plays a very misunderstood role in language learning. While children are more susceptible to learning a language the natural way through immersion and gradually developing the accent-less skill of a native speaker, adult learners have been shown to be able to learn vocabulary and grammar much more easily and quickly than young children.

      I wouldn't say that language learning is more difficult the older you get, it's just a different process.

    • SotD and Zera profile image

      SotD and Zera 5 years ago

      This is the second article I've read that puts Japanese as hard for English-speakers to learn. It means that I have to agree that individual aptitude is an important factor- I've always found Japanese to be far easier than German. Anyway, good breakdown of the modern methods.


    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 5 years ago from California

      I find the number of hours required to learn very interesting. It's probably more time than most people have unless they have some really good reason to learn. My 7 year old is currently learning Spanish. I'm hoping that by starting early she'll have a decent command of the language by the time she reaches college.

    • artblack01 profile image

      artblack01 5 years ago from New Mexico

      My sister was in the air force sometime in her mid twenties and went to the defense language institute in Monterrey, Ca to learn manderine Chinese. The course is six months and my sister is now fluent in Chinese.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is a very useful and interesting hub. I agree with everything you write, and I know from my experiences of learning Chinese Mandarin that learning a new language is indeed a marathon. A person must have an intrinsic motivation for learning. A person can also take no holidays when learning a language. If you do, you'll lose the language from lack of exposure and practice. I am sharing this excellent article with my followers.

    • watergeek profile image

      watergeek 6 years ago from Pasadena CA

      This fear of making mistakes in conversation has been a huge one for me. I know the grammar and plenty enough words to be fairly fluent by now in Spanish, were I to actually speak it on a regular basis. I find myself reversing to an earlier-life shyness when I even think about speaking with someone, yet the few times I've tried it have almost been fun.

    • Silver Poet profile image

      Silver Poet 6 years ago from the computer of a midwestern American writer

      I wholeheartedly agree that if a person wants to learn a new language it will be much easier for him or her. People who are hungry to know more and who are driven by an internal desire to devour knowledge will make the very best students.