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How long does it take to learn a language?

How long does it take to learn a language - Lingua TranslationsIt’s easy enough to pick up a few phrases from foreign languages here and there; especially when they’re dotted around in the media and subtitled in films.

The novelty of knowing how to say something basic in a language other than your native mother tongue can often lead to a desire to learn more, to start to actually speak the language beyond a simple “Hi”, “bye” or “Hasta la vista, Baby!”

Starting to learn a language though, can be very daunting and in the beginning, when faced with new grammar rules, strange pronunciation and seemingly endless lists of vocabulary, the novelty can quickly wear off.

For whatever reason you want to learn this new language, it’s natural to want to progress quickly. However, if we aren’t able to express exactly what we want to say, even when it is something so simple in our native tongue, we get frustrated and it can seem as though it will take forever to get even close to fluency. So, just how long does it take to learn a language?

According to the language difficulty rating at Effective Language Learning, the average time it takes to learn a language (for English natives) varies according to the language and its similarity to English. The ranking, created by the Foreign Service Institute, is divided into five categories.

Although by no means an exhaustive list, it gives an overview of the average time taken to master a foreign language. In the first category, with a time scale of 23-24 weeks, are those languages which are closely related to English, including French, Spanish, Norwegian and even Afrikaans.

German represents category two, with a slightly longer average time of 30 weeks, whilst in the third category, Swahili, Malaysian and Indonesian take around 36 weeks to learn.

The languages that take the longest time to learn are those that are exceptionally difficult for English speakers to get to grips with, due to the clearly visible differences. These, as you would probably expect, are languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Considering the use of a completely different writing systems, the reams of characters that must be learned and the tricky pronunciation, it is no wonder that on average the languages in this category take around 88 weeks to master.

According to a study published in the Harvard Business review, it has generally become accepted that people should expect to invest 10,000 hours in order to become an expert in a foreign language. Applying this figure to the various methods available for learning a language, in order to become “fluent” it would take years of lessons.

Immersing yourself fully in the culture, by living in the country for example, would be a much faster way of learning but is not always possible.

Does it perhaps depend though, on what level of fluency you are hoping you achieve? If you only wish to have enough of a language to get by on holiday or to talk regularly in other languages with friends, can you say you have learnt a language when you reach the level you personally want to? What are your thoughts?

For more information on the diverse range of languages that we work with, please visit our languages page.

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About Sharon Stephens

Sharon Stephens is Operations Director of Lingua Translation. With a First Class Honours Degree in Translation and a University Lecturer in Translation (Masters), she is a self confessed language geek! Bringing the academic principles of translation and business together Sharon offers a quality-driven and needs centric translation and interpreting service - like no other.

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