The Language Learning Curve: What’s the Best Way for You to Improve Your Language Skills?
Becoming fluent in a new language is a journey… and in my research with language learners I’ve discovered a “language learning curve” that most people follow.
Before I share that, here’s how the language learning journey went for me.
After 5 years of learning Spanish at school, I was only able to remember the bizarre phrase “tengo diez peces” (“I have ten fish”).
To be honest, when I started Spanish, I never thought that I would get much further than “buenos días”, so maybe talking about fish was a step forward from that!
As it turned out, I returned to Spanish as an adult in evening classes at university, and then jumped between various self-study courses before moving to Spain for an eight week language course. I experimented with any and all materials available, and (perhaps most importantly) moved into an all-Spanish speaking flat within a month or so. I spent the next two years in Spain, and the year after that in Colombia.
I remember watching Spanish TV on the first night after moving to Spain (Valencia), and wondering if I would ever understand what they were saying. After a few months in Spain, I was able to work my way through a newspaper (El País – probably not the easiest one for learners!), stopping every second word to look something up in the dictionary, taking one hour to get through an article.
With listening, for a while I could only pick out words and phrases. Later, I started to connect the dots – moving from getting the gist of something to understanding subtleties of conversation. I remember the feeling of frustration that everyone passes through when they can understand more than they can say, and then the joy of finally being able to express myself as I wanted to.
Becoming a confident Spanish speaker took me a long time, and it was anything but a linear process. I certainly haven’t finished learning, and I hope I never do.
Fast-forward a few years, and I became curious to understand whether other people’s experiences learning languages were the same as mine.
I run a website for Spanish learners, Spanish Obsessed, with my Colombian partner Lis, and we asked our readers to share their experiences learning Spanish. We created a survey asking for responses around various data points, in the hope of piecing together the typical language learning curve.
We were to delighted to get over 500 responses! Based on these we derived a few interesting insights into how people learn a new language.
Before I get into the data, a quick caveat: This is not a strictly scientific, controlled study. Responses were self-reported, and while the people responding to the survey come from a variety of backgrounds, may not be completely representative of all language learners.
The Language Learning Curve: How Long Do Most People Take to Learn a Language?
We asked people how long they had been learning Spanish, and what level they thought they had reached. Here’s what we found:
Digging deeper into the chart above, we can see:
- For the typical language learner, it takes around 18 months to reach the “pre-intermediate” stage, or 25% of the total time they’ll spend studying to reach near-native level. This is the honeymoon phase of language learning, where everything is new, motivation is high, and progress is quick.
- Things start to slow down between “pre-intermediate” and “intermediate”. This is where learners move from fumbling their way around some basic phrases to stringing sentences together. It’s also marked by a big increase in comprehension. Around two thirds (66%) of the time spent learning a language is spent here.
- Once you make the jump to upper-intermediate, it becomes easier and things speed up. The hardest jump is between pre and upper-intermediate.
- Reaching a native level of proficiency takes a long time… Our advanced learners have been studying an average of six years. Initially, I thought this seemed like far too long. However, this is the average, across a large group of learners. They are a mix of people, including casual learners.
How Much Time Per Week do You Need to Learn a New Language?
We also asked participants how long they spent on Spanish each week:
- Motivation seems to be at its highest at either end of the language learning spectrum. Beginners are filled with,a hunger for the language. Likewise, the most advanced learners spend a long time each week on their Spanish.
- There’s a definite wane in time spent studying once learners get over their initial honeymoon period. Study time drops from nearly six hours to around three hours per week, as learners figure out that they’re in this for the long haul, and the quick early gains start to subside.
- High level learners still spend a long time studying Spanish, using a mix of activities, including listening, speaking and reading. This perhaps reflects their consistency and continued motivation. Good things come to those who wait (and work for it!).
What Language Skills are the Easiest to Learn?
Respondents also rated a variety of language skills (such as speaking and reading comprehension) between 1 (easiest) and 5 (most difficult).
Not surprisingly, everything gets easier as learners improve.
Here’s what we found overall:
- Grammar is hardest for complete beginners, but quickly becomes one of the easiest skills. It seems that once beginners have an idea of the absolute basics, grammar quickly falls into the background.
- Interestingly, speaking skills (both fluency and accuracy) are at their most challenging around the elementary/pre-intermediate levels, while listening comprehension is actually slightly easier. This reflects that feeling that learners go through of understanding more than they are capable of producing. The good news is that this gets easier over time.
- Speaking was rated as the hardest skill for all levels, while reading was the easiest. No surprises here!
The 4 Stages of Language Learning
Based on our findings as well as our own experience, we’ve broken down learning a language into four stages.
We’ve included an approximate time-frame for each stage based on our findings, however remember that this is an average and it’s possible to learn a language much faster with the right approach and motivation.
Here’s what you can expect learning a language to native level fluency:
Stage 1: Beginner – Elementary (0 – 6 months)
At this stage, you’re full of enthusiasm for the language. Everything’s new, and you can immediately see how to use phrases and vocabulary that you learn.
You’re in the honeymoon period – you have time and energy to devote to this, and as a result progress is quick as you learn the easy “low hanging fruit” of the language. “Grammar” is a large, scary concept, but you’re not too worried about that for now. Everything’s difficult, but you’re making rapid progress so feel good.
Focus areas for beginners:
- Enjoy the quick progress you are making, and use this time to start building a language learning habit.
- Understand that you are learning a lot, quickly, but that things will get harder.
- Decide now whether or not you want to commit for the long term.
Stage 2: Elementary to Pre-Intermediate (6 months – 1 year)
This is the stage that sorts the wheat from the chaff. Those who took up learning Spanish as a fad are starting to drop off, and you realise that you are in this for the long-haul. You have a choice to make: learning this language is now either a labour of love or a struggle.
You’ll find that your motivation starts to wane, and the time you spend on Spanish nearly halves. Progress slows down as the easy wins available to beginners dry up. Speaking starts to become a major frustration, as you realise how far your tongue is behind your ears. This is one of the hardest points to break past in learning a language.
Focus areas for pre-intermediate language learners:
- Motivation and persistence are key here. Although it now seems more of a struggle, if you revisit your initial motivation that will keep you going.
- Choose to view this as a labour of love, rather than a struggle.
- Understand that this is, in many ways, the hardest point in the language learning curve. Things will only get easier, and you will only get better from this point!
Stage 3: Pre-Intermediate to Intermediate (2 – 3 years)
Good things come to those who persevere! This is the steepest part of the learning curve, but if you are able to make it to intermediate level there’s a good chance you can keep going.
You’ll have a decent enough grasp of grammar and base vocabulary to understand 80% or more of what you hear and read. Speaking skills (both fluency and accuracy) show marked improvements as you reach an intermediate level, and you can start having more in-depth conversations.
Listening is also a lot easier at intermediate level, and you’ll enjoy your interactions a lot more at this stage.
Focus areas for intermediate language learners:
- Have as many real conversations with real people as you can.
- Increase your input as much as you can – now’s the time when you should look to watch Spanish TV, read the newspaper in Spanish, and change your Facebook to Spanish (if you haven’t already!).
Stage 4: Upper Intermediate and Beyond (3 years +)
After 3 years (or maybe sooner, of course!), you’ll start to break into fluency. Everything becomes easier, and you start to enjoy Spanish and live in it, rather than view it as an object to be studied.
You can have fulfilling conversations with native speakers, you can understand a variety of types of Spanish, and as a result of this spend more time in the language. This has the happy consequence of further improving your Spanish, which becomes a loop: the more you enjoy Spanish, the more time you spend immersed in it, and the better you become.
From this point onwards, it’s up and away!
Focus areas for advanced language learners:
- You’ll be finding Spanish really enjoyable now, so make sure that you keep trying to bring Spanish more into your life. The more immersion the better, and you don’t have to go to a Spanish speaking country to do this.
- You don’t need to compartmentalise your time into “study time” any more. Look for ways to integrate Spanish into your life, without necessarily having to set aside an hour each day specifically for the purpose