How long does it take to learn a language? A western perspective
Learning a language it is a bit like a learning an instrument, it requires a lot of practice on a daily basis, commitment, focus and most of all, passion!
Individual skills, ability to concentrate also play an important role, along with strong will to dedicate a good 30 minutes or an hour daily to learning.
Your memory will also improve as it has been scientifically proven that learning a language prevents mental deterioration.
This article will look at a western perspective of learning a language, as for a European may be more difficult to learn Chinese, Thai or Japanese but for a Chinese or Japanese it may be just the opposite, probably finding it harder to learn a European language.
There are many language families categorised according to their origins but the FSI, US foreign service institute, divides languages according to their difficulty, into the following groups.
FSI enlists Afrikaans Danish Dutch French Italian Norwegian Portuguese Romanian Spanish Swedish in Group 1 with a learning timescale of 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours) and these are languages closely related to English.
For languages similar to English like German it would take 30 weeks for a total of 750 hours to learn the basics.
Group 3 includes languages with linguistic or cultural differences from English like Indonesian, Malaysian and Swahili for a total of 36 weeks (900 hours)
Category IV is the one with more languages, all with significant differences from English, with an expected learning period of 44 weeks (1100 hours).
This category includes the following idioms:
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik) Polish
Category V includes Arabic Cantonese (Chinese) Mandarin (Chinese) Japanese, Korean.
It would take you 88 weeks (2200 hours) to learn these languages as they are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn.
This categorisation above reflects the views of the FSI so this may differ from other institutes in the world.
For a European to learn other European languages of the same category, it would take 480 hours to reach basic fluency in group one languages and 720 hours for other language groups, this is possible if you are able to apply yourself for 10 hours a day!
If you are able to dedicate yourself for that time every day, it would take you 48 days for group 1 and 72 days for the others. But probably nobody would have that much time every day to study a language. It could be agreed that on average it would take you between 6 months to a year to become a beginner. To become fully proficient it could require double the time or much longer depending on the language and on the time you spend studying.
Besides when learning an idiom you have to consider the culture hidden in the words, in the idiomatic expressions. A language reflects the beliefs, the values of a country and its people, therefore mastering a language not only means to understand the words, know the grammar and so on but also means to understand the people who grew up with different standards and vision from yours.
Useful tips for language learning
Once you set your mind to start learning a new language and culture, what are the tips to keep motivated and get better at it daily?
- Be committed – what is the purpose for you learning a specific language? Find a reason and it will be easier to stick to the process.
- Speak to the people you meet if you are in the country of the chosen language or otherwise join a group online or in person, watch movies and read. Reading helps a lot in terms of sentence structure, expressions, new words that can enrich your vocabulary!
- Listen to TV shows, news or radio shows, podcasts, local TV channels.
- Try to think in the target language without thinking first in your own mother tongue
- Learn like a child – this means make mistakes! And do not compare the two languages, just learn by listening and repeating.
- Go out of your comfort zone, do not be worried about making mistakes or embarrassing yourself. Find every excuse to speak and immerse yourself in the language, chat on the train, in a shop, at the supermarket.
- Use your time to listen, for example when you are doing other tasks like washing dishes, driving your car, walking, working out. Repetitive listening is a very good way to get used to a new language.
- Use the cuisine of the country – cooking a dish and learning about its ingredients or origins will help you immerse yourself in the culture, besides improving your cooking skills
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself – learning a new language has its difficulties and it takes time.
Most of all enjoy the process. And remember, it is never too late to start learning!