This is a really important question for most people when they start to learn a language, but it’s also a really tough one to give a straight answer to. Because it really depends on a few factors:
Factor 1: How “fluent” do you want to become?
Fluent really is a fluid word that means different things to different people. Do you want to sound indistinguishable from a native speaker? That is a feat that not everyone can even achieve, and if you are to achieve it, it probably means you’ll have to move to the country where the language is spoken and immerse yourself for years. But if you want to be able to have a well-flowing conversation with a native speaker, that will be possible in a much shorter time. Learning up to 70-80% of a language can be relatively fast, but the closer to 100% fluency you want to get, the more effort you have to put in for every 1% gain. How long does it take you to get to 70%? It depends on the other factors below.
Factor 2: Which languages do you already speak, and what language do you want to learn?
If you are Japanese and want to learn Chinese, you have the advantage that much of the characters are very similar to the Japanese Kanji. If you already speak French, it is much easier to learn languages related to French, such as Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. In the Netherlands, there are special classes and learning methods for people from Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Norway who speak related languages. I have a German friend who picked up near-native sounding Dutch while playing with Dutch friends on the street. I must admit that he has a gift for languages, though.
Conversely, if you are a Westerner and learning Chinese, it’ll take you extra effort because of the totally different structure of the language and the lack of recognizable words. It is possible to learn the language, and in fact if you really put yourself to it, you have the advantage that you don’t have to ‘unlearn’ anything from related Asian languages. As a Japanese writing Mandarin, you have to be careful because there are little details that make a whole lot of difference. People who speak Teochew, Hokkien or Cantonese will initially learn much faster because the words are alike, but are also more likely to get confused. So to learn up to 80% of the language, speakers of related languages have an advantage because of familiarity, but for the last stretch, it actually is an advantage to start with a ‘clean slate’ as you won’t have to unlearn certain pronunciations or grammatical patterns.
By the way, it’s a myth that Westerners can not learn Asian languages. Just as many Chinese and Japanese speak English well, Westerners can also learn those languages. In my view, it’s no easier for a Chinese to learn English than for a Westerner to learn Chinese. It’s the motivation and determination that can make it happen, which is the next factor I want to mention.
Factor 3. How much time and effort can you bring to the table?
It’s important to be realistic when you start to learn a language, to make sure you don’t quit learning in disappointment. A major factor in how long it takes is how much time you are willing and able to put into it.
In mathematics there may be wonder kids who can simple ‘get’ complex equations almost instantly, but learning a language is hard work, even for the most gifted language learners. Don’t just count how much time you can spend sitting in the class but think about how much time you will have to revise between classes. Are you in an environment where you HAVE TO speak the language, e.g. do you have roommates whom you can only converse with in the language you are learning? Do you watch movies or try to read books in the language you are learning? All of these things count towards your time spent learning and really help you to speed up the learning process.
Factor 4: Are you passionate about the language? Are you good at learning languages?
In my life, I have taken classes in English, German, French, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Latin and Mandarin, and in each of these classes, you’d see that some people simply pick the language up faster than others. It’s a matter of how your brain works. Some people are simply better at reproducing sounds and seeing patterns in languages. It also helps if you have learnt other languages before, even if they are not related to the language you are learning. The 3rd language you learn will be easier than your 2nd language.
So how long does it take to learn a language? There really is no hard and fast answer to the question how long it will take you to become fluent in a certain language. It depends on a number of factors, such as what you really define as being fluent, how related the language you want to learn is to your native language, how much time and effort you can put into learning the language and your passion and aptitude for learning languages.
You might have hoped to get a number from me as an answer to this question. To give a very broad estimate, I would say getting conversational in a new language can be achieved in a matter of months if you dedicate yourself to it full-time (a few hours every day), whereas the time needed to become near-native is measured in years – although during those years you probably won’t need to study the language full-time.
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