Students learning languages through the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages (FCCSWL) often ask how long it will take to become fluent in the language.
The answer to this question hinges on:
- What kind or level of fluency you are trying to reach.
- Your prior experience with a language similar to the one being learned.
- Individual differences in language learning motivation and skills.
Fluency and Proficiency
“Fluent” doesn’t always mean the same thing:
- For one student, “fluent” might mean the ability to comfortably interact with people in the activities of everyday life, such as informal socializing with friends and family and managing necessities such as shopping and transportation.
- For another student, “fluent” might mean the ability to take subject area classes conducted in the language, function in an internship or volunteer role without an interpreter, or handle typical complications of everyday life such as arranging for household repairs, medical care, or navigating bureaucracies.
- For a third student, “fluent” might mean the ability to engage in high-level professional employment using the language. This may mean being able to read and write complex texts in the language, give detailed presentations, discuss ideas and give reasoned opinions, and understand and use cultural nuances of expression in complicated discussions and environments.
Since the term “fluency” can have so many meanings, at FCCSWL we have adopted the concept of “language proficiency” as defined by the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL):
- Language proficiency refers to what someone can do in the language.
- The points of reference are real-life scenarios that involve increasingly more complex language skills in order to navigate.
In the scenarios above, the first student’s fluency goal corresponds to the ACTFL INTERMEDIATE levels of proficiency (there are sub-levels you can learn about later), the second student’s fluency goal corresponds to ACTFL ADVANCED levels of proficiency, and the third student’s fluency goals correspond to the ACTFL SUPERIOR proficiency rating.*
Differences in Language Difficulty
How long it takes to learn a language also depends in part on whether you already know another language that has similarities to the one you are learning. If your first language is English, it will be less difficult to learn languages such as French or Spanish that have significant vocabulary and grammatical similarities to English, than it will be to learn Vietnamese, Wolof, Arabic, or any other languages that share very little similarity with English.
In the United States, the government agencies charged with training diplomatic, military, and intelligence personnel have categorized languages based on their level of difficulty for native English speakers to learn. The difficulty categories are based on actual experience with how many hours of intensive study (in the classroom and outside of class) it typically takes for these government employees to reach various levels of proficiency.
The various government agencies have not always categorized languages in the same way, but you can get a good sense of these categories and estimates of how long it takes by studying this version of a category chart posted on the website of Language Testing International (the official testing service run by ACTFL).
For reference, students taking courses through FCCSWL are most commonly enrolled in a “half course” each semester.
- The expectation for a half course is at least one hour of study per day for the entire semester (this includes both individual study and formal sessions). If you devote one hour per day for a semester, you will have devoted between 90-100 hours to the language learning task.
- If you are enrolled in a full course, the expectation is two hours per day of study (individual and formal sessions) which is about 170-200 hours for the semester.
Does It Take Some Students Longer Than Others?
The “How Long Does It Take?” chart also categorizes the length of time it takes to learn a language based on individual aptitude for language learning: Minimal, Average, and Superior. While there is no doubt that some people seem to be able to learn languages more easily than others, what we have learned through many years at FCCSWL is that there are other factors that play a larger role in whether students will reach their proficiency goal.:
- Motivation is key. In the long-run, students who have a strong reason for learning a language will usually make the most progress, whether or not language learning comes easily or with difficulty.
- Often what might appear to be a difference in “aptitude” is really a difference in whether a student does or does not employ effective study tools and strategies. A student who learns quickly may not so much have a stronger aptitude for language learning, but has figured out a really good set of language learning techniques and employs them consistently. A student who initially struggles may turn around completely after learning to implement more effective strategies.
*Other rating scales that are based on proficiency include the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) Scale used by the U.S. government and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Depending on your career goals, you may find it helpful to become familiar with one of these scales.