How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?


The question of how long it takes to learn a language is not asked as frequently as the question, Can I really learn to speak a language? Some people would be very glad if they could say even a few phrases in a foreign language with a passable accent. Others mainly want to read great works of literature. And still others may aspire to speak and write another language as fluently as their mother tongue.

Before travel abroad became common, foreign languages were associated in this country with educated people and immigrants. The former were often interested only in reading and writing a particular language, while the latter could speak their native language, but had little occasion to read or write it after coming to the United States. Some educated people resembled the upper class British gentlemen of the nineteenth century, who typically "knew" French, but were disinclined to imitate the "peculiar" sounds a Frenchman makes when speaking.

In today’s world, many people who study a foreign language chiefly desire to speak it. It is important, therefore, to estimate how well a person can expect to speak a language after studying it for a certain number of hours — and conversely, how many hours it may take him to reach the fluency he has in mind. Several estimates follow on how long it takes to achieve various sorts of mastery, based on FSI data, and personal research.

The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) Rating Scale

Most U.S. government agencies use the FSI Absolute Language Proficiency Ratings to measure a prospective employee’s ability to use a foreign language in his work. Once employed, he periodically undergoes the same type of rating as a basis for promotion. The person to be rated is interviewed by one or more trained testers, who are always native speakers. They converse with him for ten to twenty minutes, probing his command of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Then they pool their judgments to assign him a rating. The lowest rating is 1, the highest 5, and any rating can be modified by a plus or minus.

Each rating designates a particular degree of mastery of the language for business and social purposes:

  1. Elementary proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
  2. Limited working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements.
  3. Minimum professional proficiency. The person can speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.
  4. Full professional proficiency. The person uses the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.
  5. Native or bilingual proficiency. The person has speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.

How long, one wonders, does it take a person to achieve the minimum 1, and how much longer after that to reach a 2 or a 3?

FSI researchers studied the performance of all their students during a three–year period, noting the ratings they received after various periods of training. Table 1 shows the results for the "easy" languages and for the "hard" languages. Incidentally, the definition of "easy" and "hard" were arrived at by including only Group 1 languages — for the most part the "Romance" languages —under the "easy" languages, while "hard" languages included Groups 2,3, and 4.languages — all other languages — as listed in the second part of the Table below. Whether this is the most valid, or even useful definition of easy and hard to learn languages, depends to a large degree upon whether one feels that language instruction, regardless of learner or teacher preference, must start with each individual learner gradually acquiring an increasing control of the spoken language, before adding written skills, or with the current standard academic approach to avoid language as a spoken skill at first, and work with an eclectic, mixed approach using a written grammar– translation and oral–drill combination, perhaps with a language laboratory, or combinations of film, CD–ROM and/or other equipment. There are advocates on both sides.

"Easy" Languages: (Ratings of FSI students speaking a Group 1 language after specified Periods of training.)

8 weeks (240 hours) 1/1+
16 weeks (480 hours) 2
24 weeks (720 hours) 2+

"Hard" Languages: (Ratings of FSI students speaking a Group 2–4 language after specified Periods of training.)

12 weeks (360 hours) 1/1+
24 weeks (720 hours) 1+ /2
44 weeks (1320 hours) 2/2+ /3

Which Are the "Easy" and "Hard" Languages?

Group 1: French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili

Group 2: Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu

Group 3: Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Lao, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese

Group 4: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean

In reality, these time estimates are a little lower than they at first appear; holidays and other lost time reduce them by about 10 percent. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear. If you are a language learner of average ability, and you undertake an "easy" language, it will probably take you about 240 hours to get to the first level of mastery in speaking it, and double that to get to Level 2. If you are slower than average at learning languages, allow 50 percent more time, if faster, 50 percent less.

These figures are based on a particular type of instruction: the FSI intensive course where one studies a language for six hours a day, five days a week, in a class of no more than 10 students, led by an experienced linguist and a well–trained native drillmaster. The school is a language–learning paradise, the students are highly motivated, and optimum results are achieved. Yet these estimates are reasonably valid for people who, like most of us, have no choice but to attend a conventional course that meets forty–five minutes a day or a couple of evenings a week.

Human attention is limited. No one can absorb knowledge steadily for six hours a day, week after week; some of the time in intensive courses is necessarily "wasted" in relaxing, clearing one’s mind, or plain daydreaming. Moreover, things that seem confusing one day sometimes clear up by the next, after they have settled into place in one’s mind. This "incubation" factor favors a non–intensive learning schedule. In short, it is not certain that people who spread their language learning over a longer period necessarily require more total hours than those who concentrate. They may even require fewer.

The overriding message is that anyone can learn a foreign language, but some people are quicker at it than others. Still, language learning is a serious commitment, and if one’s aim is to speak it comfortably (say, 2+ on the FSI scale), this is likely to take the equivalent of six months of full–time study.

If your objective is to master the language fully in speech and writing, then you may have to devote at least a year and a half, most of it spent in the foreign country, to reach this objective. A good plan would be to study the language for three to six months at home, and then go to the foreign country for at least a year, during which time you must speak only the foreign language. At the end of this time, you would understand most people and even television and movies, read almost any written matter without a dictionary, and perhaps write with a modicum of style. Adults who go abroad to live find that after several months of getting adjusted to speaking and understanding in everyday situations, they can then begin to penetrate the language and participate in the life of the country.

Some people are dismayed by time estimates that run to hundreds of hours. They feel that this is more time than they are willing to commit. They should reflect on the fact that one year from today they will be one year older whether they undertake this learning task or not. The only question is, whether on that day, they are going to be well along toward mastering the language they have dreamed of knowing, or whether it will still be only a dream.

The Pimsleur Language Teaching Methodology

As noted earlier these FSI learning rates and achievement levels for easy and hard languages are based on learners being trained with a particular FSI Intensive Language Training Program. It is revealing to compare these results with results based on learners using the Pimsleur Self–instructional Language Comprehensive Programs, which consist of three coordinated levels containing 30 audio lessons in each level. Under the Pimsleur Methodology, learners accomplish one 30–minute lesson each and every day.

The Pimsleur method of language training is based upon the assumption that every natural language contains within itself all of the keys to unlock the code of that language. Therefore Pimsleur introduces the learner to any new language by exposing him to spoken language in use i.e. in actual communication. This practice permits the learner to actually "hear" precisely what he needs to hear in order to identify and to understand who is doing what to whom, when, why, and how. In this type of training the learner gains the most powerful aspect of language, which is to be able to hear statements, to understand the situation, and eventually to respond with his own choices.

In short, he will be using all of the meaning–carrying elements human languages have developed over generations to become the incredible tool it has become! What more does a learner of a language need in order to behave as a normal human being and engage in spoken communication with his language community? Teaching him the rules of grammar in English is not an asset he can afford to waste his time on at this stage of his language learning!

All of this essential learning can happen — and be acquired as language–in–use only if the learner is allowed to concentrate on being "exposed" directly to the target language while it is actually–in–use! This means the adult learner can "do his own thing" and having previously developed his linguistic skills, will acquire gradual control of this new language as he did his mother tongue. It will be as natural as talking! And we have made no mention here of the part that learning to re–apply and re–use the same sort of previously acquired linguistic skills will mean to learners. It will also mean they will learn faster and easier and their success will give them the confidence and assurance they need to stay the course of learning!

The important principle in the development of adult spoken–language communication skills training is that learners progress from a compound linguistic system, in which the items of the second language are added to the native language to form a coordinate system. In this coordinate system the two languages can function independently, as appears to be the case with pure bilinguals.

Concerning language acquisition itself, with the exception of those with severe pathologies, everyone who has acquired his native tongue, can, under appropriate conditions, learn to understand, to speak and communicate effectively in additional languages.

A second language will be acquired by a normal human being if and only if particular, whole instances of the language are modeled for him and if his own particular acts of using the language are selectively reinforced. The critical point is that unless a learner has learned them as language–in–use, he has not learned them as language, and that if he has learned enough such instances, he will be able to understand and to effectively communicate in the foreign language.

In second language learning, instructional procedures have a considerable effect in determining the way in which the two languages coexist psychologically. The objective of spoken proficiency levels — effective communication — depends upon the instructional methodology of the teaching/learning Program.

In the space of each Pimsleur lesson of approximately 30 intensive minutes a day, the adult learner will experience real–language use. As he does this, each individual learner builds his own tapestry of language, whether it be in one, or several additional languages, after the first one. Pimsleur learners know they have the power to use languages in real life!

Pimsleur learner’s who follow the schedule of Pimsleur training, will test out as follows, on the ACTFL as well as the FSI Proficiency Scales. The ACTFL (The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) has developed their own official Proficiency Scale as a statement of the general aims and goals for the foreign language teaching profession. ACTFL and the FSI have published equivalencies between the two Scales.

Level I Pimsleur Instruction 30–lessons, after only 15 cumulative hours, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediate–low spoken proficiency, (a FSI –1 rating), able to survive and cope in country; able to ask and answer questions dealing with everyday situations, and as well earn respect and cooperation for your fluency, your pronunciation, and courtesy.

Level II Pimsleur Instruction 30 more lessons, after the second 15 cumulative hours, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediate–mid spoken proficiency, (a FSI –1 rating), able to exchange information about yourself, your family, or associates, and avoid basic cultural errors .

Level III Pimsleur Instruction 30 more Lessons, after the final 15 hours of the Comprehensive Program — for a total of 45 hours of training, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediate–high proficiency, (a FSI –1+ rating), able to participate in casual conversations and conduct everyday transactions with success and pleasure in your achievements.

The use of the ACTFL Proficiency Scale in this publication does not constitute endorsement of any private Enterprise or product by The American Counsel On the Teaching of Foreign Language.




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