How long does it take to learn a language?

In another article I wrote this month, I talked about advertisements generating unrealistic expectations, and one of the examples I used was the language training industry. While most companies doing business in this field are very respectable, some schools make somewhat surprising promises, such as:

  • How to be bilingual in three months.

  • Start speaking a new language in seven days.

  • Learn English in 30 days.

  • Learn a language in your sleep.

I will not put the websites of these schools, to respect my competitors, but if you are interested, you can search them online. They are real. I did not invent these titles.

With these types of promises, one must wonder; how long does it take to learn a second language? Are these promises realistic? I am often asked this question and people usually understand, but I have some who are surprised with the duration of our program. So, I thought going in-depth might be interesting for some.

As we specialize in conversation, my answers will be in the acquisition of oral skills, not writing or reading.

The quick answer is: it depends! Well, what does it depend on then?

The first variable that must be determined to fully understand the time required is the starting point. Where are you starting from? Are you at the very beginning? Have you started to learn? Also, how did you learn your second language? This is an important point that we will see later. This is where our placement test evaluating your verbal skills comes into play. Thanks to this tool, we can know your starting point and the objectives to be worked on for your block of hours. We have written an article on our placement tests that you can read here to learn more about this aspect.

The second point is of course the other extreme; what are the goals with your language or what level of mastery of the language do you want to achieve. At Langage d'ici, we have 10 levels, but comparatively few people find themselves in the more advanced levels since the goal is often to be understood and not to express the finer points of your ideas in the target language. If you do high-level negotiations, the information you share is very nuanced, or you are exposed to multiple levels of the language, then advanced levels may be important to you. But for the most part, a strong intermediate level fulfills the goals of being understood by your co-workers.

Another very important point is your availability. Learners who can take classes two to three times a week will see much faster progress than those who can only take lessons once a week. The reason is simple, the lower the frequency, the more time we must spend on reviewing concepts. Why? Because the learner will not have time to build on what has been learned, especially if language lessons are the only opportunities to speak. So, the more classes you have in your week, the faster you will be able to memorize and reuse new structures.

Will you be taking private or group lessons? While taking a language course is great, the fact is that not all language courses are the same. Private lessons can get you going faster in some areas. Here are some of them; the course is tailored to your needs, you speak with a teacher who masters the language, vocabulary, and subject-matters are those that interest you, in short, private lessons are better with these aspects. But when it comes to interacting and understanding, group classes give you more options. If your difficulty is to interact with others, to follow a conversation, then speaking with several learners who have a varied speaking speed, different accents, a vocabulary of their own, etc., will make you progress faster. You will work on your understanding and your answering better in a group. Also, you step out of your comfort zone. Sometimes a teacher's strengths can also be a weakness. If you interact with people who have different language levels in your daily life, practicing continuously with someone who masters the language will not prepare you for this reality. So private and group lessons have their respective strengths.

The other factor is the work done outside of the classroom. If class time is the only time, you practice your target language, then progress will be slower. In another article, we provided tools to help you with your English and French. With the Internet, there are many ways to find tools to continue familiarizing your ear with your target language. Reading, listening to shows, writing, finding opportunities to converse are all activities that continue your exposure outside of the classroom. The more you do, the faster you will progress.

Another point is the number of languages you already know. If you are at your first second language, you must learn to think in another language for the first time. This can slow down the process somewhat. However, those who will have two or more languages in their arsenal will already have some flexibility in this aspect. The acquisition of another language is usually done a little faster. Is this a limiting aspect? Not at all. But you must be patient with your progress and persevere. We regularly teach adults who are learning a first second language, and their progress is very good. But they do not learn it in seven days.

Also, there is what the other language is. Here in Quebec, we speak French, and we have a very strong English presence. If you learn one of these two languages, you will have an advantage. There are also similarities between the language you know and the one you learn. If you speak French and want to learn Spanish, the vocabulary and sentence structure are very similar. This will help you in your learning. At beginner levels, when learning Spanish, we all try to put an "a" at the end of the French word to see if it is the same in Spanish. While this does not always work, it is often used to try to build new vocabulary. Same thing if you speak Spanish and you are learning Portuguese. But if you are learning Mandarin, this strategy cannot be used. The languages are very different. You must start from the beginning and develop new hearing skills (hearing the four different types of Mandarin sound). The work involved is more important.

We mentioned earlier the importance of how you acquired your target language if you already speak a little. If you have some bad linguistic habits, you might have to take a corrective class to unlearn those bad habits and learn the right structures. This takes time and effort. If you learned the language at school, during your studies, good news; you can build on what you have learned. But if your teachers have been your sparring partners, your friends at the local pub, or some other source with a more familiar level of speaking, you may have some corrective lessons to do.

So, with all of these aspects, how long does it take? The full program at Langage d'ici has a total of 450 hours of training. But depending on the parameters established in this article, this can be much less. But let's face it, it will be more than seven hours or 30 days!

If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate.