This is a $64,000 question, right? How long will it take you to be fluent? Well, let me tell you about me and how I view my own language studies in Spanish and Mandarin.
Learning a language WILL require dedication, focus and commitment. Whichever way you choose to learn a language, it will take hundreds of hours to reach fluency.
But fluency doesn’t have to be as heart-crushingly distant as 20 years away…
When I learn a new language, I aim to reach a level where I speak confidently and comfortably in the language; I want to reach a point where others can understand me. I call this “social equivalency”. For me, that's fluency! Usually, I’m not trying to pass a specific test. In my view, language learning is not an academic pursuit; it’s a practical one. I aim to be able to use the language effectively in everyday conversation with the people I meet.
If you were to look at my goals in terms of pre-established levels, then on the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR) scale my goal is around a B2 level.
This means I “can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.”
If you were to study a language on your own for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for a total of 20 hours a week, the estimates that you often read about from CEFR and the CIA, etc., mean it would take you somewhere between 45 weeks and 220 weeks to reach B2 level of your target language. That is between one and four years!
So, how do you account for hundreds of people around the world (including myself) who are able to reach a B2 level in a matter of months or up to a year? Well, there are a few reasons why the “official” numbers are misleading.
Myth 1: Tests are What Really Matter
The schools and organizations that these figures come from are focused on helping students pass a specific test or reach a certain certification or degree.
My purpose for learning languages is quite different. I rarely study to meet the requirements of a specific test.
My test is real life. My aim is to use the language as quickly as possible, and so my focus is on a “real world” approach. In other words, I aim to use the language, as opposed to analyzing the language.
Myth 2: Classrooms are the Best Place to Learn a Language
Most classroom environments have one person standing in front of several other people, disseminating information in one direction. Is that the best use of your time if your focus is on practicing the language as much as possible?
The amount of time you get to speak during most language classes is pretty low. In a classroom with 20 students you might get called on to speak with the teacher just 4 or 5 times for a total of around 5 minutes all together.
I don’t know about you, but 5 minutes per hour is not the best use of my time.
Myth 3: Textbooks are the Best Way to Learn a Language
In one hour with a native speaker the entire time would be spent actively using the language. Even if you accounted for 50% of the time when you may be listening to the other person, that is still 30 minutes every hour where you are speaking the language.
That is at a 6x increase in the amount of practice you get over a classroom environment. Instead of spending 6 hours in a classroom, you could get the same amount of speaking practice in just 1 hour with a native speaker!
Myth 4: Your Teacher Knows Exactly What You Should Study
That materials you cover with a one-on-one native speaker are different than what you study in a classroom, for one very important reason: it is relevant to you!
In a classroom the teacher tells you what materials you should study and the words you need to learn. For example, you may have an entire week focused on different modes of transportation, when the only method you actually ever use in your own life is a bicycle. Do you really need to learn the word for “monorail” or “freight train” as a priority?
By comparison, your own study with a native speaker is 100% relevant to you and your life. The words you use when speaking are related to you, so not only are you able to speak more quickly with a larger number of useful words, but you have a better chance of remembering words about yourself.
Most language teachers are focused on teaching you the language, but they spend very little time teaching you how to learn the language. This means you are stuck studying with ineffective methods like rote memorization or listen-and-repeat tactics.
So here are a few of my suggestions:
1. Mnemonics and Spaced Repetition Systems
2. Use Verbling to find a native speaker to talk with you for an hour. (* But remember you get what you pay for; low cost does not always mean a great teacher)
3. Stop Studying a Language; Live the Language!
Try to incorporate your new language into every aspect of your life. Listen to music in your target language. Watch movies in the language. Play computer games or use your phone in the language.Heck, even think in the language. This constant exposure will enhance your ability to speak the language and recall vocabulary.
So, just how long does it really take to learn a language?
Based on my experience I would put the total hours necessary to reach a B2 level in most languages is around 400 to 600 hours. Now, before I say anything else, let me explain a few key points:
First, the number of languages you have learned before will affect this number. If it is your first time learning a language (and the first is always the most difficult) the number will be closer to 600 hours.
Second, I use the hacks I mentioned above, so my efficiency is higher than most people who are studying using “traditional” methods of rote-memorization and listen-and-repeat tactics.
Finally, keep in mind the goal I mentioned before. The only test I’m trying to pass is real-life interactions. I don’t study the language, I live the language, and my focus is always on speaking from day 1.
So, let’s break the hours down.
First, let’s look at an intensive learning project.
If you’re studying 5 hours a day, 7 days a week (which is about what I do during my language learning missions) and use a combination of live one-on-one practice sessions with a native speaker and self-study, you will be accumulating 35 hours a week. Over the course of 12 weeks (3 months) that works out to around 420 hours. That falls right in line with my prediction on how many hours it takes.
What if you can’t be that intense in your language learning?
I know that not everyone can put 5 hours a day into learning a language. But anyone (that includes you!) can absolutely find 1-2 hours a day, no matter how busy you are!
When you have less intensive study times, you do need to account for catching up, because you’ll have less momentum. Even with 33% extra study time to account for this, you still only need 560 hours.
I hope this helps some of you out there as you try to set a goal and a plan for yourself! Good luck! And sign up for a trial if you want to practice living the language!