The CIA is Wrong: It Doesn’t Take 1,000 Hours to Learn a Language
Does it really take up to 4,400 hours to learn a language? According to the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, that’s how long it should take. Study for 20 hours a week, and that’s over four years! Reduce that to five hours a week – a more realistic amount for most of us – and you’re bridging two decades. Crazy!
Don’t get me wrong. Learning a language requires dedication, focus and commitment. Whichever method you choose to learn a language, it will take hundreds of hours to reach fluency.
But fluency doesn’t have to be as heart-crushingly distant as 20 years away…
In any case, I’ve said before that focusing on the number of hours you study is a much more important measurement than the years you learn a language.
But just how many hours does it really take to learn a language?
Before we dig into more numbers from “official” sources (including the college where CIA trainees go for language training), let’s take a closer look at what it really means to be fluent in a language.
What Does Fluency Really Mean?
When I learn a new language, I aim to reach a level where I speak confidently and comfortably in the language. I call this “social equivalency”. For me, that’s fluency.
Usually, I’m not trying to pass a specific test. In my view, language learning is not an academic pursuit; it’s a practical one. I aim to be able to use the language effectively in everyday conversation.
If you were to look at my goals in terms of pre-established levels, then on the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR) scale my goal is around a B2 level. This means I “can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.”
With this as my goal, the way I study languages is completely different to the systems used by many “official” language learning organizations.
Essentially, my goal is to communicate. Their goal is to help you pass a test.
So, how many hours do they say you need to pass a language test?
The “Official” Number of Hours It Takes to Learn a Language
I’m going to take a look at a few different official sources related to language learning. Each has a different estimate of how long it takes to learn a language. By looking at several sources, we’ll come to a common understanding.
Most of these organizations measure time based on classroom hours. But we don’t just learn in a classroom — we have to study on our own as well. The suggested ratio is 2 hours of personal study time for every 1 hour of classroom time. That makes one classroom hour into three study hours.
For the purpose of this article I’ll err on the conservative side and make one classroom hour into two study hours.
Let’s take a look at a few different sources.
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)
The CEFR is the system used by many language learning centres in Europe. They measure the amount of time it takes to learn a language in “GLH” or “Guided Learning Hours”. Essentially, these are hours in a classroom.
If we look at a typical language course of 2 hours a day, 5 days a week, that equates to 10 hours per week or 20 hours of total study time.
Using English as a baseline example the GLH required to reach a B2 level on the Cambridge English Exam is around 500 to 600 hours, which, when accounting for personal study time, equates to between 1,000 and 1,200 hours.
The American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL)
The American Council of Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL) recently created guidelines to help language students work out their proficiency.
The have 5 different levels — Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior and Distinguished — with the first 3 each having 3 sub-categories of low, mid and high. The equivalent level to what I work towards on my language missions is around the Advanced-Mid level.
So, how long do they say it takes to learn a language? Well, based on the ETS Oral Proficiency Testing Manual from Princeton University, it depends on the language. They have 4 “difficulty” categories for languages, from Group I (Spanish, French, Portuguese, among others) to Group IV (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean).
Their estimate to reach Advanced-Mid level ranges between 480 hours of classroom study for Group I and 1,320 hours of classroom study for Group IV. Double that to include personal study time, and you arrive at somewhere between 960 and 2,640 hours!
The Defense Language Institute (Where CIA Spies Study Languages)
The Defense Language Institute (“DLI”), located in Monterey, California, is where the CIA, members of the U.S. armed forces and various other government agencies go to learn foreign languages. This is the premier (and only) language school for military and government personnel.
They provide residential language learning programs and even encourage a total immersion environment. According to their course catalog, students attend class 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. That’s 30 hours a week, not including personal study time.
Students at the DLI are training to pass the DLPT, or the Defense Language Proficiency Test. This is basically the government equivalent of the ACTFL. The Advanced-Mid level on the ACTFL equates to a Level 2 on the DLPT, which is the requirement for graduates of the DLI.
Their course catalog also provides the number of hours to complete their course. For Group I languages like Spanish and French students study for 26 weeks, and for Group IV languages such as Arabic or Chinese, students study for 65 weeks.
At 30 hours a week of classroom time, this equates to between 780 and 1,950 hours to learn a language. Factor in personal study time, then it is at least twice that number: 1,560 to 3,900 hours!
Non-Official Estimates of How Long it Takes to Learn a Language
So far we’ve looked at “official” government estimates of how long it takes to learn a language. Non-official sources provide an even broader picture of how many hours it takes to reach fluency.
According to Huan Japes, the deputy chief executive of English UK, a trade body for language colleges, it should take around 360 hours to get to around a B1 level. Since there is a 25% to 60% increase in the time it takes to get from B1 to B2, you’re looking at around 450 to 720 hours. With personal study time that is 900 to 1,440 hours.
Meanwhile, a 1999 study by the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, found that adult native English speakers took 600 classroom hours to achieve the DLPT level 3 (around a CEFR C1 or C2) for languages like Spanish or French, and 2,200 hours for Chinese or Arabic. If you factor in study time, then you’re up to around 1,200 to 4,400 hours!
Why These Numbers Are Misleading
As you can see, there is quite a range in estimates between the sources we’ve cited. They range from 900 to 4,400 hours.
If you were to study a language on your own for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, for a total of 20 hours a week, these estimates mean it would take you somewhere between 45 weeks and 220 weeks to reach B2 level of your target language. That is between one and four years!
So, how do you account for hundreds of people around the world (including myself) who are able to reach a B2 level in a matter of months? Well, there are a few reasons why the “official” numbers are misleading.
Myth 1: Tests are What Really Matter
The schools and organizations that these figures come from are focused on helping students pass a specific test or reach a certain certification or degree.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with those who pursue an academic understanding of languages. Personally I think it is wonderful that there are those who have dedicated themselves to a scholarly pursuit of language theory and pedagogy.
My purpose for learning languages is quite different. I rarely study to meet the requirements of a specific test.
My test is real life. My aim is to use the language as quickly as possible, and so my focus is on a “real world” approach. In other words, I aim to use the language, as opposed to analyzing the language.
Myth 2: Classrooms are the Best Place to Learn a Language
If you are working to be able to communicate in the language with native speakers, then find the methods that are best for that specific purpose.
Most classroom environments have one person standing in front of several other people, disseminating information in one direction. Is that the best use of your time if your focus is on practising the language as much as possible?
The amount of time you get to speak during most language classes is pretty low. In a classroom with 20 students you might get called on to speak with the teacher just 4 or 5 times for a total of around 5 minutes all together.
I don’t know about you, but 5 minutes per hour is not the best use of my time.
Myth 3: Textbooks are the Best Way to Learn a Language
I’ve talked at great length that speaking is the best way to practise a language. And, of course, the best way to speak the language is one-on-one with a native speaker.
In one hour with a native speaker the entire time would be spent actively using the language. Even if you accounted for 50% of the time when you may be listening to the other person, that is still 30 minutes every hour where you are speaking the language.
That is at a 6x increase in the amount of practice you get over a classroom environment. Instead of spending 6 hours in a classroom, you could get the same amount of speaking practice in just 1 hour with a native speaker!
Myth 4: Your Teacher Knows Exactly What You Should Study
That materials you cover with a one-on-one native speaker are different than what you study in a classroom, for one very important reason: it is relevant to you!
In a classroom the teacher tells you what materials you should study and the words you need to learn. For example, you may have an entire week focused on different modes of transportations, when the only method you actually ever use in your own life is a bicycle. Do you really need to learn the word for “monorail” or “freight train” as a priority?
By comparison, your own study with a native speaker is 100% relevant to you and your life. The words you use when speaking are related to you, so not only are you able to speak more quickly with a larger number of useful words, but you have a better chance of remembering words about yourself.
Studying in the one-on-one, native speaker method means you are able to use the language much more quickly than when studying in a classroom.
How to Bust Language Myths and Become a Language Hacker
Most language teachers are focused on teaching you the language, but they spend very little time teaching you how to learn the language. This means you are stuck studying with ineffective methods like rote memorization or listen-and-repeat tactics.
You’ve seen above that one-on-one practice with a native speaker is more effective for learning to speak, but when you start to incorporate specific language learning “hacks” the effectiveness is increased even more.
Here are a few of the most powerful hacks I use myself to help with my language learning efficiency:
The Pomodoro Technique
Use this time-hacking method to increase your productive sprints. By alternating 25 minute work sessions with 5 minute rests, you allow your brain to get some breathing room and are able to get in more focused work. Check out my video where I share how I use this technique.
Why does this work? If you don’t time-box your study sessions, the more you study in a single session, the worse you get at retaining the information and staying fresh as you get deeper into that session. Take breaks and you’ll be much more fresh!
Mnemonics and Spaced Repetition Systems
These memory-boosting techniques are the cornerstone of my language learning missions and allow me to quickly build up my store of useful words and phrases in record time. You can read more detailed instructions on how to use mnemonics and Spaced Repeition Systems on the blog.
Use italki to Find Low-Cost Online Teachers
You don’t have to travel to a country to immerse yourself in a language. You can find teachers and language exchange partners online. That way, you can practice your language from the comfort of your own home without ever buying a plane ticket. Be sure to check out my posts on how to use italki to find a language partner, as well as how to use Skype to learn a language.
Stop Studying a Language; Live the Language!
Try to incorporate your new language into every aspect of your life. Listen to music in your target language. Watch movies in the language. Play computer games or use your phone in the language. Sing in the language.Heck, even think in the language. This constant exposure will enhance your ability to speak the language and recall vocabulary.
The Truth About How Many Hours It Takes to Become Fluent
So, just how long does it really take to learn a language?
Based on my experience I would put the total hours necessary to reach a B2 level in most languages is around 400 to 600 hours. Now, before I say anything else, let me explain a few key points:
First, the number of languages you have learned before will affect this number. If it is your first time learning a language (and the first time is almost always the most difficult) the number will be closer to 600 hours.
Second, I use the hacks I mentioned above, and those I share in Fluent in 3 Months Premium , so my efficiency is higher than most people who are studying using “traditional” methods of rote-memorization and listen-and-repeat tactics.
Finally, keep in mind the goal I mentioned before. The only test I’m trying to pass is real-life interactions. I don’t study the language, I live the language, and my focus is always on speaking from day 1.
So, let’s break the hours down.
First, let’s look at an intensive learning project.
If you’re studying 5 hours a day, 7 days a week (which is about what I do during my language learning missions) and use a combination of live one-on-one practice sessions with a native speaker and self-study, you will be accumulating 35 hours a week. Over the course of 12 weeks (3 months) that works out to around 420 hours. That falls right in line with my prediction on how many hours it takes.
What if you can’t be that intense in your language learning?
I know that not everyone can put 5 hours a day into learning a language. But anyone (that includes you!) can absolutely find 1-2 hours a day, no matter how busy they are.
When you have less intensive study times, you do need to account for catching up, because you’ll have less momentum. Even with 33% extra study time to account for this, you still only need 560 hours.
But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at what some other “language hackers” have done.
Lauren’s Russian Mission
Lauren is a fairly new language learner, currently working on her first full language learning mission with Russian. In her 1 month update she noted that she had been studying for 2 hours a day for 30 days (or 60 hours total), and she’s reached around a high A1 or low A2 level.
Maneesh’s Language Learning Experience
My friend Maneesh Sethi is able to learn a language in 90 days, and if you look at his methods and recommendations, he suggests studying 4 to 8 hours a day (we’ll average it at 6), 7 days a week. That works out to 42 hours a week which, over 12 weeks, is 504 hours. That’s right inside my 400 to 600 hour range.
If You Only Take Away One Thing from This Article, Remember This
There are two big lessons that come from all this analysis.
The first is that the traditional way of looking at language acquisition has some problems, because it is based on two huge myths:
Classrooms are the best place to learn to speak a language. (They aren’t!)
The goal of every language learner is to pass a test. (It isn’t!)
The number of hours that most “official” organizations say it takes to learn a language is built upon these (at least in my case) incorrect assumptions.
To become a fluent speaker of a language, with a focus on communication, then the best way to improve your skills is to speak the language. I make this point so often that I should just rename the website to SpeakSpeakSpeak.com.
When your goal is connecting with real people through a new language, then the number one priority should be to figure out the most effective and efficient ways to speak as much as possible. And that is what my approach is all about.
If you want to learn the language to use the language, then the road ahead just got a lot shorter!