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When you set out to learn a new language, it’s natural to wonder how long it’s going to take. Whether you’re learning for travel, work, love, or just for fun, knowing how long the road ahead of you is can help you better plan your study time and keep your eye on the prize.
Read on to find out the answer to the question: “How long does it take to learn a new language?”
Learning a new language: The basics
How long does it take to learn a language? Here’s the short answer. On average, it takes between 22 and 28 hours of active study to learn the very basics of a language like you’d learn in an Elementary I college course. That means you can say hello, ask for the bathroom, and get through some routine conversations, like ordering at a restaurant or asking a neighbor about their day.
If you’re using an online learning platform that teaches a combination of grammar, pronunciation, listening skills, and vocabulary – like Busuu – 28 hours of active study is approximately equivalent to one college semester. And that makes sense – if you’re in class for about two and a half hours per week (two 75-minute classes) for 15 weeks (an average college semester, you get 37.5 hours of study, but not all of those hours will be spent on active learning of the language.
You might have question periods, cultural lessons, a movie day or practice in conversation or listening, times where students give presentations – all things that factor into overall learning and memorization but are not necessarily the same as a guided lesson.
That said, the actual time to become measurably competent in a new language will vary pretty widely depending both on you and the language you choose to learn.
For example, completing the A1 level using the Common European Framework (CEFR) in French (Category IA) using Busuu, you take 99 lessons, meaning you could, in theory, complete the level in about 25 hours. Japanese (Category IV), on the other hand, has 181 lessons to complete the A1 level, putting you closer to 45 hours just to take all of the lessons at the first level.
Plus, of course, while the basics might get you through a vacation to a foreign country, they may not be enough to meet your specific learning goals.
The thing is, there’s simply a lot of variation in how long it’ll take to learn a language.
Factors that can affect how long it’ll take to learn a new language include:
- Language choice (and difficulty)
- Language goals
- Linguistic background
- Your age (to a certain extent)
- And how you choose to learn
So if you’re wondering, how long does it take to learn a language? Take a closer look at each of these factors below to find the right answer for you:
1. Language choice
Which language do you want to learn? The difficulty of your chosen language – and how different it is from English – can seriously affect how long it should take you to learn.
The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which has a large and fairly reliable data set on how long it actually takes English speakers to master a given language, has broken down languages into 4 basic categories of difficulty. The hardest languages to learn include Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean – languages that use both different grammar systems and writing systems from English.
Their numbers for how many hours of study are required are based on reaching “Professional Working Proficiency” in speaking and reading, meaning an individual may still have an accent or make errors in complex and infrequently used grammatical structures, but broadly can read and speak the language at a normal pace for native speakers with few errors or misunderstandings. This is approximately equivalent to C1 in the CEFR.
Busuu languages by hours of study required for an English speaker to reach Professional Working Proficiency
|Category||Hours of Study||Language(s)|
|I||600||Dutch, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish|
|III||1100||Polish, Russian, Turkish|
|IV||2200||Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese, Korean|
Looking for a different language? See the FSI’s full list of languages by category here.
Of course, these numbers are averages and not a guarantee, but you can use this as a general guide for how long it should take to learn a new language to a high level.
2. Language goals
What are your goals for your new language? At what point will you say that you have successfully learned the language you’re studying?
For example, you might say:
- I want to be able to travel comfortably
- I want to be able to have an in-depth dinner conversation
- I want to conduct business in my new language
- I want to sound just like a native speaker
These are very different goals. Sounding like a native speaker and mastering grammatical intricacies may take decades, while learning to have a basic conversation and get around a foreign country can often be done in mere months.
For example, learning basic Japanese is probably easier than you think – you can learn enough to make a trip to Tokyo much less stressful in just a few weeks! However, learning to read kanji and use keigo (Japanese honorific speech) appropriately typically takes thousands of hours of study. Both goals are worthy of your time and effort, which one you pursue just depends on what makes sense for you and your needs.
You can actually decide on a specific level of proficiency based on a framework like the Common European Framework (CEFR) – which is what we use at Busuu. While, as mentioned above, you can cover the basics in fewer hours, Cambridge University offers a guide for how long they recommend you spend studying before taking each CEFR exam. This can work as a different sort of guide for how many hours you should expect to spend to reach your chosen goal.
These numbers are for English, which is a fairly difficult language, so it’s safe to say you can think of this as a guide for learning a Category III language – adjust accordingly up or down for your language of choice.
How long does it take to learn a language?
|CEFR Level Completed||Total # of Study Hours (approximate)|
|B2 (Upper Intermediate)||500-600|
Setting defined goals to reach will help you make progress, stick to your study plan, and better understand how long you’ll need to learn your chosen language.
Learning a new language is good for you
No matter why you choose to learn, tackling a new language is a great way to spend your time! Learning a language helps keep your mind sharp and opens doors to new opportunities and conversations.
Get started with a new language for free today.
3. Linguistic background
When figuring out how long it’ll take you to learn a new language, it’s worth considering what language(s) you already speak.
That’s because many languages overlap with each other, sharing grammar, vocabulary, or writing systems or styles, which can give you a leg up in learning.
For example, if you already speak French, learning Spanish may be easier for you than someone coming in without any prior knowledge of Romance languages. And studies suggest that knowing how to speak any second language may give you a leg up in understanding how to tackle a new language. That means you may be able to learn a new language a little faster than the average.
That said, even if you’re monolingual right now, don’t be discouraged! You can expect learning a new language to take around the amount of time listed in the FSI’s language learning averages. And hey, once you’ve learned one new language, you’ll have an advantage if you try to tackle another one later.
4. Your age
Age is something that gets talked about a lot when it comes to language learning, but does age really matter when it comes to learning a new language?
Recent studies suggest that how old you are might not matter as much as previously thought. If you want to learn to speak a new language perfectly, it helps to start when you’re under 18. Younger people have advantages – their brains are still growing, they’re still developing linguistic skills in their native language, and they typically have more time to devote to learning.
Small children, in particular, can adapt to new languages more easily and tend to learn using methods that are less useful or appealing to older people – through song, trial and error, and simplistic and repetitive exercises and activities. That said, if you’re over 18, it doesn’t seem to matter significantly whether you’re 22 or 62.
The things that matter most are how much time you can devote to learning, how you choose to learn, and your exposure to native speakers.
On that note…
5. Learning method
How you choose to learn can make a big difference in how long it takes you to master different skills in a new language.
When it comes to speed and effectiveness, immersion greatly affects how quickly someone can pick up a language and how thoroughly they master it. Immersion – coupled with lessons – is probably the fastest way to learn a language.
There are many reasons for this – it’s easy to stay motivated when you need to learn in order to communicate, but you also have an opportunity to see how the language is used in real life and pick up finer points that can be tough to master through rote memorization.
Plus, if you think of language learning in sheer hours, if you’re exposed to your new language all day every day, you rack up hours much faster than you might at home taking lessons and listening to the news. What would be a grueling day of study at home becomes the natural way a day goes if you’re living in the language you’re trying to learn.
That said, most people can’t up and move to learn a language, so assuming you won’t be immersing yourself in, there are many ways you can learn – in person and online classes, finding others who speak the language to spend time with, traveling, reading, watching TV, listening to radio – and they all have value. However, some tactics will help you make progress faster than others.
If you focus only on reading and grammar, you may struggle when it comes to speaking out loud. If you mostly use media like film and TV, you might struggle with the finer points of grammar and vocabulary.
At Busuu, we believe in using bite-sized lessons that combine grammar and vocabulary lessons; listening, writing, and pronunciation exercises; and feedback from native speakers from our learning community to make sure you get a well-rounded language learning experience.
Sample learning schedules for learning a new language
Language learning takes work, no matter how you go about it. You’ll always need to put many hours of studying in, but it’s rewarding!
Bloggers will tell you that the fastest time to learn a language somewhat proficiently is probably about 2 months.
That would require a schedule that would look something like this sample schedule below, and would likely only be available to people living in an immersion situation:
Sample Learning Schedule 1
Goal: Complete B2 (Intermediate) level in Italian (Category I) as fast as possible, with no other commitments to consider
Calculation: Need 40-50 hours per week of learning, with a mix of concrete academic learning, interesting activities, and real-world speaking practice.
Intensive language learning schedule
|8-9 am||Wake up, have an espresso, listen to or read the news in Italian, looking up any new words||1 (activity)|
|9-10 am||Homework review or app-based lessons||1 (academic)|
|10 am-12 pm||Italian class or tutoring (in-person or online)||2 (academic)|
|12-1 pm||Lunch, preferably out at an Italian café or ristorante||1 (practical)|
|1-3 pm||Vocabulary and grammar review||2 (academic)|
|3-4 pm||Exercise or go for a walk while listening to Italian music or radio||1 (activity)|
|4-5:30 pm||Practice writing or speaking in Italian||1.5 (academic)|
|5:30-6:30 pm||Read a book in Italian||1 (activity)|
|6:30-7:30 pm||Free time||1|
|7:30-9:30 pm||Dinner with Italian native speakers or an Italian movie||2 (practical)|
This schedule would give you 6.5 active learning hours per day plus another several passive hours of learning, which would put you at 312 active learning hours in two months (if done 6 days a week), plus hundreds more supportive hours reinforcing what you’ve learned. Assuming that Italian needs about 300-400 hours of study to complete the B2 level, this would easily put even an absolute beginner in range to pass their Italian B2 test with flying colors in 2 months or less.
However, making learning a full-time job just isn’t an option for most of us! The average language learner will need and want a much less rigorous study plan.
Let’s say you’re going to Mexico in six months and want to get as far as you can in your Spanish studies before you go, but you’re still working a full-time job. The belowsample study plan might look like this:
Sample Learning Schedule 2
Goal: Complete A2 (Elementary) level in Spanish (Category I) in 6 months
Calculation: Need 5-6 hours per week of well-rounded learning, with a focus on skill-building
Flexible language learning schedule
|Monday||Lesson with morning coffee, podcast on commute home||1|
|Tuesday||Lesson during lunch||0.5|
|Wednesday||Lesson with morning coffee, vocab review before bed||1|
|Thursday||Spanish music on morning commute, Spanish class after work||2|
|Friday||Lesson during lunch, Spanish movie night after dinner||2.5|
|Saturday||Study group, dance class, or other practice with native speakers as available||1.5|
|Sunday||Next lessons and grammar review||1|
Just doing that, you’d get 9.5 hours of overall study, including 5-6 hours of structured lessons, enough to meet your goals in 6 months. If you decided to do a lesson with your morning coffee 5 days a week, you could add another hour and a half of lessons each week and get even further.
It can be harder, as we get older, to put as much time into studying. Whether you put a lot of time in to meet a specific goal in a matter of months or just a few hours each week to learn over the course of years, consistency is key.
So, how long does it take to learn a new language?
That depends on you, but one thing’s for certain – the sooner you begin, the sooner you can reach your goals. So why not get to work right now?
On Busuu, you get award-winning language learning content, bite-sized lessons that work with your schedule, and a welcoming community of learners ready to help you along the way.
So, which language will you choose?
Get started and choose from 14 languages offered by Busuu today.