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, 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 traveler. 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, and as you've seen there's quite a few. 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.
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 statistician, 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.