One of the most common questions we get from our students is “How long does it take to learn English?” There’s no simple answer, but read on to get a better idea of how you can learn English faster!
The Factors Influencing the Language Learning
Before you start on a major endeavor like learning a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth!) language, it’s good to have a long-term plan and a timeline for your goal. So really, how long does it take to learn a new language?
The answer depends on a number of factors:
What is your starting level?
What is your target level? Is your goal absolute proficiency or simply to be able to navigate everyday life?
How intensively will you be studying the language?
How are you studying?
Are you surrounded by the language in your life?
What individual factors might affect your learning?
No Simple Answer
Benigno, de Jong, & Van Moere (2017) write, “Although there is no unanimous consent as to how many hours are needed to gain increasing language proficiency, attempts have been made to produce learning time estimates.”
This is even more complicated because learning a language is not linear. This means we don’t simply go from zero English to fluent English and there’s a straight line in between. There are ups and downs; in some situations our English can be fluent, and in others we can struggle to express ourselves.
Your Starting Language Level
Are you a “true beginner” —someone who has never learned the language at all—or a “false beginner”—someone who has studied in the past, but forgotten a lot of it? People with some background in the language will progress more quickly.
Target Language Proficiency
What are you trying to do with the language? Do you want to be able to travel comfortably and get around on a vacation in Spain? Are you hoping to live in Italy and chat with locals in Italian? Or are you hoping to study abroad in English at a university level? These different language functions all require very different levels of proficiency.
Language Learning is influenced by First Language
Another important factor is the languages that you already know. Aspects of your first language can transfer to your new language in ways that make your progress faster or slower.
If you want to learn English, and you already speak Danish, there are many similarities between Danish and English that might help you to learn English more rapidly. If your first language is Arabic, and the Roman alphabet that we use in English is new for you, that could require a little more time for you to learn. But if you already speak both Arabic and French, that could speed up your acquisition.
The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center ranks languages by their similarity to English.
Category I (26 weeks) includes Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.
Category II (35 week) includes German and Indonesian
Category III (48 weeks) includes Dari, Persian Farsi, Russian, Uzbek, Hindi, Urdu, Hebrew, Thai, Serbian Croatian, Tagalog, Turkish, Sorani and Kurmanji
Category IV (64 weeks) includes Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, and Pashto
There is no simple equation here, but your native language is one of the factors that can affect how fast you learn your new language.
Language Study Methods
Another major factor is the way you are studying. Duolingo can be a lot of fun, but it’s not going to make you fluent in another language. You’re also not going to get too far if you’re just studying grammar rules and vocabulary words.
Research shows that the best way to acquire a language is to use it. Talk to people in the language. Watch movies in the language. Listen to podcasts. Take classes with a real teacher or a group of learners.
(Note: Despite what you may read on other websites, there is NO evidence that native speakers make better English teachers. You simply need a good teacher who is proficient in the language.)
Meaningful interaction in the language is necessary to develop fluency.
Individual Factors in language learning
There are also individual differences that can make language learning easier for some people. Lots of research suggests that young learners acquire languages faster.
Personal motivation can be another factor. Perhaps surprisingly, students who have an internal motivation to learn a language tend to progress better than students who want to learn for a practical reasons like getting a better job.
Personality is another influence: are you outgoing and talkative or more of an introvert?
Intensity of language Study
When people ask, how long does it take to learn English (or Spanish, or Chinese), they sometimes think that the answer will be a number of weeks or months or years. But really, a major factor is the intensity of your study. Are you studying English full time, 20 or 30 hours per week? Or are you taking a class once a week for 2 hours? This makes a big difference, and the most meaningful answers are in the number of hours you study, not months or years.
Here are the estimated number of hours (from Cambridge English Language Assessment) for the number of study hours needed to reach different levels on the Common European Framework:
A1 – approximately 90-100 hours
A2 – approximately 180–200 hours
B1 – approximately 350–400 hours
B2 – approximately 500–600 hours
C1 – approximately 700–800 hours
C2 – approximately 1,000–1,200 hours