This Question Is Sabotaging Your Language Learning—Please Stop Asking It, My Friend

“HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE FOR ME TO LEARN (insert language here)?”

We’ve all heard it. “A person can learn Italian in X amount of time.” “You need X amount of hours to reach conversational fluency in Russian.” “It takes X years to master Japanese.” I’ve been teaching languages since 2015 and I’ve been learning languages since 2004. During that whole time I have never stopped hearing the question “How long will it take me to get fluent in…?”

It’s understandable that when we start out on a new project we want to be able to plan ahead and know what we’re getting into. But this question of how long it will take you to learn a certain language reveals a misunderstanding about what language actually is and how it’s acquired. Here are some reasons why you can’t definitely say how long it will take a person to learn a language.

  • What Do You Mean by “Learn”?
  • What Language(s) Do You Know Now?
  • How Much Time Can You Invest Every Day?
  • A Much Better Question to Ask

What Do You Mean by “Learn”?

When you imagine yourself using this new language, what do you see? Are you in a restaurant asking about the specials? Are you in the country where it’s spoken getting around as a tourist? Are you reading your favorite book? Are you asking your neighbor his opinion on current events? Are you getting up in front of an audience and delivering a 30-minute talk on a deep, life-changing subject?

Any of these accomplishments are impressive, take a lot of hard work and should be celebrated. The problem is that when many people thinking of “learning” a language, they think of it in terms of finishing a class or a program. As though at the end of it they will be handed the language like a graduate is handed a diploma, or the language will be unlocked like an ability is unlocked in a game. That’s not how language works. Language is a skill.

If you want to get good at pull-ups, it will take you a certain amount of time. If you want to master the iron cross, it will take much more time. You don’t take a gymnastics course for a year and upon finishing it “know” gymnastics.

So realistically, how long it will take you to learn your language will depend on how far you want to go with it, and what you intend to use the language for.

What Language(s) Do You Know Now?

How similar is your target language to the one you speak now? Let’s take the example of an English speaker. They will find it much simpler to learn a language that’s closely related to their own, like Dutch or German. English has also heavily borrowed words from Latin and French, so Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, and Romanian (everyone always forgets Romanian when they list the Romance languages 😢) are some of the “easier” languages for English speakers to learn. There are quite a few “freebee” words that sound so much like the English equivalent, they are easy to understand and remember.

For example, if you know the English words “sing” and “chant” (sing’s more latin-y cousin) the following words will not be that hard to learn:

zingensingencantarcantarchantercantarea cânta
Nu aș putea uita niciodată de tine, limba română!!! 🥰

But the more different a language is from English, the harder it will get for the English speaker to learn. For example, Greek, Persian, Hindi and Russian are all very distant cousins of English. So at this point the sounds and structure are still very much European-esque, but the number of words they have in common with English is lower and the English speaker will have to wrap their mind around some pretty new grammar concepts.

Then, as soon as the English speaker ventures out of the Indo-European language family and decides to go for a language like Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Arabic, etc. the sounds, grammar, vocabulary and even culture can very much be unexplored territory. That’s not to say that the English speaker can’t reach a very high level of fluency in one of these languages, but they will have to work harder at it. There will be much fewer “freebee” words.

So while there are neat little charts floating around the Internet saying how many classroom hours it will take to learn which languages, we need to take those charts with a grain of salt. Really, the only thing those charts are illustrating is just how different one language is from another. And it’s true that a language which is very different from your own will take you longer to learn.

How Much Time Can You Invest Every Day?

When learning a language, it’s a mistake to think in terms of months and years. Language is a skill. Skills are developed by the amount of hours we work at them. Let me illustrate the point.

Let’s say three friends want to visit Thailand and they have one year before their trip. Friend #1 books Thai lessons with a private tutor for one hour every Monday. Friend #2 books a one-hour tutor session Monday and Thursday, and also decides to supplement that with reading some books or listening to some audio courses in the language for an hour a day. Friend #3 does a one-hour tutor session Monday, Wednesday and Friday, plus studies Thai for an hour every morning, plus makes flashcards from the vocabulary he learns and practices that or an app like Duolingo for an additional hour a day.

By the time they get off the plane in Bangkok, friend #1 will have practiced Thai for 52 hours, friend #2 for 468 hours and friend #3 for 884 hours. Even though only one year has passed for each of them, they have clearly put in much different amounts of time into the language, and of course they won’t all speak at the same level.

This example isn’t to put down anyone who isn’t able to spend 17 hours a week studying a language. It’s just to illustrate that we get out of a language what we put into it. In reality, our efforts (not merely the passage of time) determine our progress.

And even if all three friends studied for the exact same amount of time, realistically everyone is different. No two people learn in the exact same way at the exact same pace. So no one can tell you how long it will or “should” take you to learn a language.

A Much Better Question to Ask

If we start out learning a language by consulting charts and asking people on forums how long it will take us to learn a language, we could be setting ourselves up for frustration and failure. Things are not as simple as the neat little chart you saw on Reddit. If you start your language journey believing it will take you 44 weeks to learn Russian, but by week 35 you feel like you’re progress isn’t where it should be, that’s discouraging. Even if you’ve accomplished amazing things in that time, like learned to read and write the language or have basic conversations, you might still feel bad about your progress. Because you’ve set an unrealistic goal, you will see failure where there is none.

So how long will it take you to get fluent in your target language? No one knows. There are too many factors at play. So don’t ask that question. It’s a fundamentally flawed question. It’s a question that can lead to unrealistic expectations and frustration.

A much better question to ask before learning a language is this: “How long am I willing to STICK with this language?” 3 months? A year? More?

Once you have the answer to that question, you can ask yourself “How much time can I reasonably spend learning/practicing this language every day?” 30 minutes? An hour? More?

Once you have the answer to those questions, you can have a realistic view of what you’re getting into, avoid unbalanced expectations and get a real feeling of satisfaction from seeing your progress and celebrating whatever milestones you reach in your language journey.

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