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How much time does it take to learn a language?

| 36 comments | Category: learning languages

One understandable misconception from people when they first arrive on this site is that I would think it takes exactly three months to learn a language.

To me the question and answer “How long does it take to learn a language?” “X months/years/lifetimes” is ludicrous, as it leaves far too much undefined and only caters to lazy one-size-fits-all mentalities, which is something I personally detest about many major expensive language learning courses.

Why 3 months then?

The reason I chose three months has nothing to do with any linguistic research about the time it takes to learn the “right” amount of words, or how long it takes for your mind to adjust to a local language, or anything of the sort.

It’s because that’s typically the tourist visa limit for visiting a country, or the time I personally like to spend in a country.

Yes, that’s where my three months comes from! It’s lifestyle related, not language related.

In three months, I can get into a comfortable routine, maybe have a girlfriend, get to know a city well, take a few weekends to visit the surroundings, and most importantly make good local friends. And yet, it’s short enough that I know another trip is on the way soon so I am still definitely a “nomad” and traveller. I consider it the “Goldilock’s zone” of not too little and not too much.

The question should never be “how long does it take one to learn a language” but How long do you have? or How intensively are you willing to invest your time?

Four year MIT course in one year?

To show you a parallel example that emphasises intensive use of time, my good friend Scott Young has decided to do the entire four year Computer Science course offered at MIT in just one year (and is blogging about his “mission” in the same way I blog about mine).

At the two month point he recently confirmed that he’s done approximately the equivalent of the entire first year course already, so it looks like he’s on track! What he is doing isn’t being recognised by MIT, but he is sitting the tests and correcting them himself and at the end of his year he will very likely know as much as any MIT Computer Science graduate.

This mission really emphasises how it makes little sense to say that it takes a very specific amount of time (e.g. four years) to learn anything. It depends on the person. Most people at college are not structuring their time as well as Scott is, so they’ll attempt to fit into their university’s randomly assigned four year box.

If you don’t learn independently, the fastest you’ll ever learn is as slowly as the course progresses. There is something to be said about independent learning.

Why you can learn a language quicker

The thing is, I fully intend to learn a language to fluency (without arguing too much about semantics, I’d simply say it’s along the lines of the level of comfort I have when I spontaneously speak French or Spanish or my other languages with natives) in three months starting in January, for a language totally unrelated to anything I’ve ever learned before.

The reason Scott and I can do such things is because we set ourselves tight deadlines and plan in a way that allows us to make them realistic. For me, the “secret sauce” is constant exposure to natives in real social environments and speaking from day one.

I don’t spend my three months studying the language, I spend them living the language. As well as this, I’m never learning a language full-time. I spend time alone on my computer, doing work (writing these blog posts take time, but as you’ll have seen this year I’ve also been adding lots of features to the site. This month I’m preparing a video course about speaking from day one that I’ll release just after the New Year). So even with less than half-time work investment, I still force myself to use the language as much as I possibly can.

I see anything else as an insult to the language itself, as you are ignoring the human aspect. Travelling to the country isn’t a necessary part of this; I learned most of my Portuguese while living in France, finding ways to meet up as regularly as possible with Brazilians.

When you learn independently you start to cut out things that are quite irrelevant. I use my engineering philosophy to decide that making mistakes is OK, and actually necessary – something many language courses tend to punish severely for, which is as idiotic a way to encourage learning to speak a language as I can imagine.

As well as this, I don’t focus much on literature or being able to write professionally in a short time, because that’s not directly related to my goal of speaking fluently. Such goals are important, but would work better as separate missions in my mind, if you wanted them. I don’t. I write text messages and read newspapers or magazines in my day to day life, so that‘s the level I need. When I feel my level is good enough and I am indeed ready, I have gone ahead with such things and consider several of my languages to be quite professional (having studied for and passed official European diplomas for these languages, which require such studies).

If you have short-term very well defined goals (make a phone call in the language within two weeks, learn all kitchen related vocab within an hour, have a 30 second chat in the language by the end of the first week etc.) rather than long-term goals that mean nothing (like “learn Spanish” – a New Year’s Resolution bound to failure) you can do so much more. It can feel intimidating to imagine doing everything that is involved in learning a language, but if you take it one step at a time, but make it so those steps push you to your limit, you CAN do a lot, much quicker.

It’s not the years you put in, but the hours you put in.

Enough with perfectionism; stop saying that you want to know every part of a language by some poorly defined end-goal (usually infinity), and be specific and do it quicker. When I say “fluency” I allow myself to make the odd mistake, and still have an imperfect accent. Fluency is not the same as being bilingual, and the fact that I’m not aiming for perfection is great because it means that a mere mortal like myself can do it in a finite time.

How much time does it take “the average person” to learn a language? Who bloody cares! I’m not a statistic, and I hope you don’t consider yourself one either. So “average” means nothing here, because you are unique in your advantages. Pick a tight deadline and a realistic solid end-goal and work with it. Even if you only get to 90% of your end-goal you have achieved so much more than most people.

Thoughts? Share them in the comments below!

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  • http://www.everydaylanguagelearner.com Aaron G Myers

    I love the statement, “I don’t spend my three months studying the language, I spend them living the language.”  But I think the main thing is getting what you the learner wants to get out of learning the language.  Live your own dream, not someone elses’s expectation for  your dream.  Thanks for encouraging us all in this Benny.  

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Right. It’s not my place or anyone else’s to tell people to study x amount of hours/months. Everyone should try to think independently and create a plan that works with their own life.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Right. It’s not my place or anyone else’s to tell people to study x amount of hours/months. Everyone should try to think independently and create a plan that works with their own life.

  • Juho Juvonen

    When I saw the title of the post I was expecting to get an answer to the question of the title. Well there was not really an answer. Benny I want to propose you to measure actually how much time you spend on learning the language by measuring the hours. You could for example make categories of different aspects of learning like Conversation, learning new words, learning grammar etc. In the end of the mission you would be able to say that you spent x hours learning grammar, x hours for having conversation, x hours for grammar etc.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      The title of the post is a very poorly formed question to ask in my opinion. I’m only posting because I get asked it so much, and want to make it clear that “x hours for grammar” is really idiotic, as it presumes too much that you can’t know about everyone, and depends on thousands of factors.

      I have no interest in measuring my hours studying, as such information would be useless to anyone who doesn’t think precisely as I do, and isn’t studying precisely the language I’m studying in the same environment and level of motivation as me, and I don’t like encouraging people to focus on studying. I study when I can, and I speak and use the language as my focus.

      I’m afraid you missed the point entirely. “Well there was not really an answer” – because there IS NO answer. It’s like asking how long is a piece of string.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      The title of the post is a very poorly formed question to ask in my opinion. I’m only posting because I get asked it so much, and want to make it clear that “x hours for grammar” is really idiotic, as it presumes too much that you can’t know about everyone, and depends on thousands of factors.

      I have no interest in measuring my hours studying, as such information would be useless to anyone who doesn’t think precisely as I do, and isn’t studying precisely the language I’m studying in the same environment and level of motivation as me, and I don’t like encouraging people to focus on studying. I study when I can, and I speak and use the language as my focus.

      I’m afraid you missed the point entirely. “Well there was not really an answer” – because there IS NO answer. It’s like asking how long is a piece of string.

      • Juho Juvonen

        Of course the hours you’re using for studying does not apply for somebody else as you’re using your methods. Somebody of course could copy your methods by learning your book.

        I am aware that you want to learn a language by socializing. As you prefer to learn language by socializing it would be interesting to see that you used for example 80% of your time to socializing instead of studying at home alone. By measuring hours people might realize that how much time you actually use for living the language. I believe that you could also find good aspects to measure.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

          “As much as possible” is my measurement. I’m not going to a party with a stopwatch ;)

  • Joseph Lemien

    The key phrase here for me is “it´s not the years you put in, but the the hours you put in.” That is one way that I find it so hard to give a good answer when someone asks me “How long have you been learning X language.” I can tell someone how long ago I started learning, but I haven’t been counting the hours that I’ve devoted to it. When people pay attention to the hours (or minutes) they commit to something, then the relationship between time and progress becomes clear.

    Very good points about goals. Although freely floating and absorbing things can be enjoyable, having a good deadline often helps us to get serious and accomplish more.

  • Joseph Lemien

    The key phrase here for me is “it´s not the years you put in, but the the hours you put in.” That is one way that I find it so hard to give a good answer when someone asks me “How long have you been learning X language.” I can tell someone how long ago I started learning, but I haven’t been counting the hours that I’ve devoted to it. When people pay attention to the hours (or minutes) they commit to something, then the relationship between time and progress becomes clear.

    Very good points about goals. Although freely floating and absorbing things can be enjoyable, having a good deadline often helps us to get serious and accomplish more.

  • Saki Galaxidis

    This reminds me of when I decided to take up a new language. I managed to get to a very basic level of Latvian within two months of reading from a course book. The books I like to go for are from the ‘Routledge Colloquial’ series, although these alone don’t help you with pronounciation that much – of course you need to have real-time experience with natives. I did not complete the coursebook; but after two months of studying the words, I was able to go to Latvia and understand a lot more of what was being said, and also have a basic conversation with locals. We sat in a bar, talking for at least an hour about things like where I was from, what I was doing here, and I felt really happy and proud that I was able to form new words. I wasn’t fluent – quite far from it – but I managed to understand and be understood. I know that I can learn a new language if I so put the commitment towards it.

    You can have a read through my blog entry about that particular day if you like.
    http://ikas90.blogspot.com/2008/06/day-218-liepaja-latvia.html

    But once again, great stuff here Benny! I hope I can be as inspirational as you. And believe me, I’m working on it.

  • Anonymous

    I think the best answer to the question is, “As long as it takes.”

  • http://staeld.clavid.ch/ Stæld Lakorv

    Tre bona artikolo. Mi certe uzos tiun celeto-teĥnikon kun mia sekvonta lingvo, kiu ajn ĝi estos. Kaj certe ĝi helpos kun aliaj (ĉiuj!) projektoj.

    Mi tre ŝatas viajn skribaĵojn – inspirantaj kaj interesegaj.

  • http://www.learn-android.com Sheridan

    Querer es poder.

  • http://www.lethalaffiliate.com/ Alfred Norman

    Hi buddy, I enjoyed
    reading this instructive post. I think learning a foreign language is tough and
    I’m learning Italian language last 3 months. But still can’t speak Italian
    language properly. So I would say to properly speak foreign language a person
    will need 6 month or more (In my opinion). Thanks

  • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ CrnoSrce

    I received lessons in German from my company while I was living there and I once asked my teacher how long she thought it would take to be able to speak German reasonably well. Her answer, said with a grave expression and a solemn tone: “Two years. Two long, hard years.” :-)

    It was, and still is, a bit of a silly question. Unless you’re learning for some specific, short-term purpose, the fact is that you will never stop learning, and never be perfect. Even if the goal were something more concrete and less than perfection (like my current goal of B2 level German), it still depends on your motivation, dedication, focus and just the time you can devote to it.

    You’re going to be using the language in one way or another from the day you start for the rest of your life, if you don’t give up. There’ll just always be room for improvement.

    Your point on perfectionism reminds me of the “debate” you had with Steve Kaufmann, which I only just listened to the other day. He says he has a very high level of ability in Russian, a level which you would definitely call fluency, and I believe he does too, and yet he was really beating himself up for not knowing the words surrounding ice-skating in a conversation he had been having with his tutor recently. There will always be more words to learn – you just have to accept that I think :-)

    • Anonymous

      “There’ll just always be room for improvement.”
      I agree 100 % with this!

    • Anonymous

      Hi, could you send me that link to the debate Benny had with Steve Kaufman. I’d like to give it a listen as well

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      The difference is that I would “beat myself up” for not speaking to someone despite lack of vocabulary. I never beat myself up about silly things like not having enough words. That’s an impersonal academic thing – a faceless number.

      Not having enough words doesn’t concern me. In English I don’t have enough words either depending on who you ask and what I’m supposed to be talking about.

      Yes, there’s always room for improvement. As with anything in life – a professional at any trade should always strive to learn more. But if he got bogged down with what he didn’t know he’d lose sight of what he can do with what he does know. I’ll keep learning in all my languages, but never lose sleep over not knowing x amount of words.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    It’s an objective, not a marketing term. Please see: http://www.fluentin3months.com/fi3m-faq/

    Also, I’ll be following the blog title closer from January.

  • http://www.mezzoguild.com/ Cardinal Mezzofanti

    Good post, Benny.

    Here’s my two cents:

    If learning a language is a means to a greater goal (employment, spouse, migration, etc.) then you have a much higher success rate and a potentially much shorter learning period.
    Any product that says Learn Language X in X days/weeks/months is a gimmick. A language takes a lifetime to learn – I’m a native English speaker but I’m still learning aspects of the language at the age of 27.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    “Seriously, who cares?”
    Precisely. I see it as nothing more than a pissing competition; I have more words than you, so I’m better than you, etc.
    I find real skill in a foreign language is a lot less quantifiable, and extremely variant depending how you intend to use it.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Keep up the good work :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    When I said that I was trying to demonstrate that travel is not the be-all-end-all of language learning. I had a work contract and couldn’t leave France for 3 months, but despite that learned Portuguese. There is no excuse.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    I always felt like it really, REALLY depended on what your goal was, seems to me that’s essentially what you’re saying.  If you just want to be able to hold a conversation about stuff in the newspaper with a native speaker for 10 minutes, you can probably get to that point in a few months.  If you want native fluency, that’s going to take years and years of work, many of which are going to HAVE to be spent in-country.  Just depends.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://www.AboutLearningChinese.com Alex Moen

    我喜欢这个。
    都要练习的时候每天。每天写和说。如果今天你常常练习,明天你非常好。
    对不起- My Chinese is surely broken, but I was inspired to get a little more practice in today ;o)  And, it won’t actually be overnight, but set those goals, and you’ll be happy with where it takes you.

    • Zoe Jane

      哇,没想到在这里能看到中文!Alex Moen,加油喔!没错,常常练习,一定会变得越来越好的 :)
      Hey,Alex Moen, I am not good at English, but I am so glad to see your comment, and I wanna told you that what you said made me wanna practice my English,too. 
      Start from here.Start from now.

  • Zoe Jane

    Hi,Benny.I saw your site today and I found I really enjoy what you said in here! 
    And I decide to do something right now,so I start to write the comment :) yeah…I am trying to use English as much as possible.
    It’s not that easy to express myself in English,but I think practice will make this better.
    It’s fun to communicate with others in English.And I think people is the great motivation for one to decide to improve their English.
    At one summer,I had to communicate with someone in Latvia,neither of us is good at English.But it’s OK.Because there’s so much fun! And it makes English such an attractive language,because it gives me another sight of this wonderful world.
    I am trying to restart to write more and speak more.
    Thank you,Benny!Your site gives me a lot of motivation and inspiration.And made realize the essential of learning of the language – it’s the people makes the language lively.The best thing is to communicate with others.
    I will write as many comments as I can xD

  • http://www.flighthouseuk.co.uk/flights/north-america/toronto-lester-b Cheap Flights to Toronto

    Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.

  • Joop Kiefte

    About mistakes, I think that on the long term everyone starts to use more what they always hear and less what they think it should be, this takes care of most mistakes. Not correcting mistakes if they don’t hurt understanding also has the benefit that the learner gets more confidence in talking, which is one of the best accelerators for language learning.

  • 若翰 安

    really nice, right now I’m thinking to improve my Chinese abilities, and get fluent-basic French and Dutch, your advices are highly useful and for me too is better live a language than study them. thanks men I really appreciate the open-mind motivation

  • http://www.photoranjan.com Ranjan Bhavsar

    Hey Benny Lewis….
    Thanks for two things.
    1. After reading your article I came to know where I am failing in achieving any of my life’s goal.
    2. I came to know about Scott Young through your website/blog here.

    Thanks for everything. Hope this will help me in achieving better things in my life.

    Regards

    Ranjan Bhavsar

  • Elise Humphries

    I really like what you said about having precise goals and allowing for mistakes… I’m actually learning Japanese at the moment and I set myself tight targets to complete in the one hour a day I actually manage to fit in around college and work. I’m a slow learner, so my targets will be something like ‘learn 5 new characters today’. Obviously I can’t afford to immerse myself in the language by going to Japan yet, being a lowly student on a piteous budget and all… But I find that even watching/reading/listening to Japanese media helps so much in this way. Anyway my motivation is the freedom that will come with being able to communicate with millions more people and enter a completely new world. It’s a shame that some people view learning a new language as something that should take many years and a huge amount of effort.

  • Jim Gargano

    I think it is obvious that living the language will get much better and faster results than learning the language, however if you are a regular guy like me living in the U.S. with a career and can’t spend 3 months living in France then what would my best prospects be for learning multiple languages quickly and efficiently?

    • http://fluentin3months.com/ Brandon Rivington

      Hey there Jim, even though you live in the US, you can definitely do it. It’s not easy, but it’s 100% possible. There are tons of sites to help you find folks to practice with. The one I like most is Couch Surfing. It’s usually to find accommodation while traveling but if you put in your city, you can search by language to find people to me up with in person (which is why I love it). You’d be really surprised to see what kind of languages are spoken near you. If that’s a bust or if you’d rather meet up over the internet, Conversation Exchange and Italki are great for finding people to talk with via Skype.

      Happy languageing!

      –Brandon, the Fi3M Language Encourager