How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?

Posted on 19. Aug, 2013 by in Language Learning

Communication doesn’t have to mean a long and intense discussion.  Just knowing how to say “hello” and “thank you” in another person’s language can completely change your relationship with that person.

Decades ago, when I was hitchhiking around the world (OK, yes, some buses and ships too), I would exchange handwritten phrase lists with other travelers making their way in the opposite direction. Hello, thank you, excuse me, where, how much. You can communicate a lot with those, some gestures, showing fingers for numbers, pointing for direction, things like that.

In Transparent Language’s Byki and Rapid Rote software, we’ve shown many times that basic words and phrases can be learned, including pronunciation, in about one minute per item. Hello. That’s one minute. Thank you. Excuse me. Where? How much? Five minutes.

Obviously, greater mastery of a language takes longer. I’m familiar with one language proficiency scale in which level 2 is labeled “Limited Professional Proficiency.” At this level, someone is expected to be able to converse socially and handle most workplace interactions successfully to a limited extent. How long does that take? One prominent language school estimates that for a relatively easy language, such as Italian, achieving Limited Professional Proficiency might require 750 classroom hours. For a more difficult language, such as Chinese or Arabic, reaching the same level of proficiency might require 1,800 classroom hours.

But here’s the thing. People who enjoy languages spend their entire lives getting better and learning more. Certainly no one I know has ever learned all of the English language. We’re all still working on it. Think of yourself as a user and learner your chosen language, and you’re just like everyone else.

You never finish learning a language. But how long does it take to learn enough of another language to make a difference? Five minutes. A word or two can make bring a smile, make a sale, help you find your way, and bridge distrust.

With hello and thank you mastered, you now know more of your chosen next language than most people on earth. After that, it’s just about having fun and getting a little better at it every day.

– Michael Quinlan, CEO, Transparent Language, Inc.

About Transparent Language

Transparent Language is a leading provider of best-practice language learning software for consumers, government agencies, educational institutions, and businesses. We want everyone to love learning language as much as we do, so we provide a large offering of free resources and social media communities to help you do just that!

9 Responses to “How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language?”

  1. Nancy USA 19 August 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    Thank You!
    Mille Grazie!
    As a 60+ year old struggling to learn Italian, my Fall semester began today, your timely article is encouraging!

  2. Adrianna 20 August 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    Grazie dal cuore!
    I’ve been self studying Italian on and off for the past couple years, and am constantly discouraged. Articles such as yours are very uplifting and I just need to remember to keep moving forward, one word, one phrase, one grammatical rule at a time. I’ll never stop learning Italian or even English :)

  3. Terry Waltz 20 August 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    Once more, you’re quoting figures that are based solely on traditional (rules-based, practice and output) language teaching as for “how long” it takes to learn a language.

    Visit a Comprehensible-Input based classroom and you’ll be amazed at how much more quickly people are able to use language than what has been conventional wisdom on such topics — particularly in the “difficult” languages like Chinese.

    • Transparent Language 20 August 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      Hi Terry. Thanks for your comment. You’re right that the hourly measurements will vary by institution, and some estimates are much lower. I think we’re on the same page, though. The idea is that you’ll never learn all of a language, but many people would be surprised to learn how quickly you can begin communicating in a new language with some basic vocabulary and the motivation to use it!

  4. fatin 2 September 2013 at 8:06 am #

    hi i’m from malaysia. i’m speak malay. thanks for your article. it is very encourage me to learn another language. i’m currently learning turkish and improve my english.. ^^,

  5. Connie 9 October 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    DIa dhuicht! Mile bhuiochas agus raibh agat! As you can see, I’m learning Irish. I’m learning it for a number of reasons, but maily because it’s a language that has fascinated me since I was a child. Now I get to learn it as part of my PhD thesis, which involves reading a number of documents in Irish. It’s not easy, but then neither is writing a docotral thesis. However, even my rudimentary understanding has takken further than even I could imagine when I first began learning it.

  6. finti 9 October 2013 at 2:37 pm #

    This is an eyes opening am currently studying french language in one ofthe university in my country…merci patron!!!

  7. Ray 13 October 2013 at 3:39 pm #

    With my German friends, 5 minutes of them teaching me their very local Baden-Württemberg slang, will only get me in trouble. :-). So, have fun, learn local dialect, but…know your friends and teachers well. Jus’ sayin.

  8. Marie Puddu 23 March 2014 at 11:41 pm #

    I find that if I really want to immerse myself in a foreign language, I can’t skip a day without learning a few words or phrases. Even if I’m not formally taking classes, there are so much resources for a lifetime study. People who love learning languages do it for life, or else it’s just routine that don’t mean much when the “class” is over. It’s nice to know how many hours I can approximately spend learning, say, Italian, but because I do it everyday, I don’t count anymore!


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