In many countries, knowing two languages – or more – is standard. For most native English speakers, though, learning a language secondary to our own seems oddly out of reach.
But though English is widely spoken, it's not actually the world's dominant language. Nor are English-speaking countries the epicenter of global culture and politics.
For a few reasons, it's so valuable to devote some time to learning languages. Your limited working proficiency in a second language could be preventing your career progression, or the love of your life could be sitting, sweet and lonely, in some foreign language class near you, waiting for a partner to conjugate more than just verbs with. (Don't get your hopes up, Emily in Paris.)
But how long does it take to learn a language? And can you really reach some level of proficiency through online lessons? Or do you need to move abroad to get the job done?
We've answered all your burning questions, and pulled together some of our top language learning tips, to help you reach basic fluency in no time at all.
How long does it take to learn a language?
If the language learning process was a map, it wouldn't be a carefully blocked-out city like Manhattan. Instead, it'd be an oddly numbered, kind of spiraling, wholly confusing, and utterly medieval sprawl like Paris.
You'd get lost more often than you'd like to, but along the way, you'd stumble upon all sorts of hidden gems.
Of course, this doesn't really answer the question – and truly, how long does it take to learn a language? There's no solid answer to that, unfortunately, because you might be a child prodigy or you might be learning Russian. Both of those factors will lengthen or shorten the process for you.
Instead, it's helpful to break the process down a bit – into what fluency actually means for you, which languages might be the quickest, and how you can speed up the job by making some minor changes to your learning technique.
What a difference a day (or week, or year) makes
Some people are naturally very capable when it comes to learning foreign languages.
They might find that in just a few weeks of near-enough total immersion, they can have lively, if relatively simple, conversations with most people. Others take longer to reach this point – and often, it's down to confidence.
You absolutely can progress quickly enough to see a difference week on week, but it's going to take a bit of fake-it-til-you-make-it to do so.
Try to put yourself in situations beyond your comfort zone. Chat with a native speaker, take a trip abroad and challenge yourself to only use your target language in shops and restaurants.
In addition, practice speaking out loud when you're home alone so you can see more progress, faster, in your chosen foreign language.
How many hours a day should you work on learning a new language?
Look, we could tell you to quit your job, dump your partner, and instead devote your life to learning languages for ten hours a day. That would mean that, (in theory, anyway) you'd achieve basic fluency in just over six weeks.
But we'd like you to be happy (and bilingual), so perhaps it's better to opt for a more sensible approach when learning foreign languages.
If you have a specific timeline – for example, a holiday in two months or a job promotion opportunity in a year that hinges on achieving the minimum professional proficiency, you'll have to let that dictate your schedule to some degree.
A short time frame will necessitate more time spent on language learning per day – perhaps twenty minutes morning and evening on a language app, a couple of episodes of a TV show in your target language to wind down at night, and half an hour of reading and writing to gain some new vocabulary words each day.
But if you've got a longer timeframe and less urgency, you should carve out the amount of time you can comfortably devote to learning a new language.
Furthermore, aim to keep it fun and interesting so you're more likely to come back to it. That might mean it takes you longer to learn a language, but if it makes you stick with it, it'll be worth it.
How many hours you devote will certainly dictate your speed of learning, but don't let it dictate your enjoyment of the language learning process.
Categorizing the languages
Generally speaking, most language learners pick a member of the Indo-European language family to learn.
But there are plenty of subdivisions even within that group, and some of the different languages you'll find in its grasp are actually spoken considerably further afield than Europe.
Before you pick your target language, you might be interested in finding out which are the easiest and hardest languages for native English speakers to learn.
Are Romance languages really easier?
The Romance languages, which are a group of European languages developed from Vulgar Latin, are among the most commonly chosen second languages.
Romance languages aren't necessarily the easiest for native English speakers. In fact, that honor actually tends to go to the Germanic languages, such as, well, German, obviously, but also Dutch, and Afrikaans.
After all, English itself is a Germanic language, and that means that learning sentence structures will be a bit easier. Plus, there are plenty of cognates, or similar words, across the languages, which help English speakers pick them up.
But back to those Romance languages, and their relative ease – while they might not top the list of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, they're certainly not among the hardest.
You'll find it a lot easier to find language partners and resources in these commonly-learned tongues, and you'll likely already know some words and phrases purely because all these languages are so ubiquitous.
And, if you've already made up your mind, we've got your back. Here are some suggestions:
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- Portuguese Phrases for Travel
- 10 German Netflix Shows to help you learn German
Which foreign language is the hardest?
Up for a challenge? Consider choosing one of the difficult native languages that don't even share an alphabet with English, let alone a root.
Mandarin is generally considered the hardest language for English speakers to learn. Its thousands of complex characters are particularly difficult to commit to memory.
Not only that, its intonations make speaking and understanding it tricky. It's still worth learning though – with 1.1 billion native speakers, it's the most dominant language in the world.
Another enormously widely-used language that'll keep you up at night learning its intricacies is Arabic. Unlike Mandarin, it has just 28 letters for you to learn. It's also read from right to left and doesn't tend to use vowels, so it's a major adjustment for English speakers.
Arabic poetry is among the most beautiful in the world, though, so at least you'll get a treat for your efforts.
Finally, Russian and its compatriot Slavic languages edge their way into our top three most difficult languages to learn with their Cyrillic alphabet, complicated grammatical rules, and highly specific syllabic emphases.
How long does it take to learn them? That depends - You had better get studying!
What's the easiest language for an English speaker to learn?
Scandinavian languages – Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish – are easy options for English speakers too. That said, they look intimidating at first glance with their numerous accents and several additional letters.
But like the Germanic languages, their grammar and sentence structures tend to come quite easily to those who speak English as a native tongue. (A notable exception is the 'other' Scandinavian language, Finnish – it's developed from a totally different root and bears no resemblance to the other three languages, which are all so close as to be nearly interchangeable.)
It's not all about European languages, either: English speakers will also find joy with some other African languages beyond Afrikaans.
Swahili, for example, a language spoken in Kenya, has many similar words to English.
But this isn't because of a shared root. Instead, it's because of colonialism – a topic worth its own deep dive, certainly, and something you should commit to learning about if you choose to pick up an African language.
Fluent or functional?
If we asked you what your language learning goal is, what would you say? It's more than likely you'd tell us you want to be fluent in your new language.
But what actually is fluency, and do you need to speak a language fluently to be able to speak that language effectively?
Fluency essentially means that you've reached bilingual or native proficiency, which is an incredible accomplishment. But generally, these are more language skills than most people find they need.
The Interagency Language Roundtable scale categorizes language skills into five levels. Fluency is level five, while elementary proficiency – the ability to put basic sentences together and make yourself understood – is level one.
You'll probably find that somewhere in the middle, or basic fluency is a great aim.
The Common European Framework of Reference, on the other hand, splits learners into three levels: a Level A language learner is getting to grips with the basics; a Level B learner can function independently and with elementary proficiency in their chosen language, and a Level C learner is effectively fluent.
What's the difference between native or bilingual proficiency, anyway?
Some people are bilingual from birth, which is a pretty enviable way to be raised.
But for most people, bilingual proficiency will never quite be the same as native fluency, because your own language and the rules you know so naturally will always take slight precedence in your brain.
In short, a native speaker is someone who speaks a language as their primary language. They were raised in a country and a home that spoke it, and as such, they'll be able to navigate the toughest grammatical concepts without even really having to think about it.
It's possible to gain a level of fluency in a second or foreign language that nearly rivals that of a native speaker, though. Many bilingual people can pass as native speakers in a wide variety of situations.
The major difference is that when a fluent speaker runs into something they're unsure about, they'll have to work a bit harder not to turn to their own language for the answers.
But if you've reached bilingual proficiency, congratulations: you've 'completed' your new language!
When work calls: professional proficiency and language learning
It's a common scenario: the company you work for expands its global offices, or partners with another firm.
Suddenly, you're expected to spend some time abroad or in meetings with colleagues or investors whose native language is different from your own.
Or, you've spotted the job of your dreams, but it requires some knowledge of a second language. But what exactly is professional proficiency in a foreign language, anyway, and how long does it take to get there?
Professional proficiency can be broken down into skill levels. Limited working proficiency won't make you a thought leader in the workplace, but you'll be able to make a bit of very basic small talk at the coffee machine and perform some tasks.
Minimum professional proficiency means you have enough of a grasp of a language to be able to participate in most conversations, though you may not be able to deliver keynote presentations, for example, because the nuance isn't quite there yet.
On the other end of the spectrum, full professional proficiency means you're effectively fluent and can conduct meetings and execute deliverables in your second language, with the speaking proficiency equivalent of an educated native speaker.
In any case, you'll likely need to devote part of your language learning to industry-specific terms that'll be relevant to your work before you can aim for professional fluency.
Of course, the amount of time you are able to dedicate to language learning will determine how long it takes to reach each respective level.
Picking your poison: which language is right for you?
Most people decide to learn a new language out of some kind of necessity. They might be moving abroad, expanding their business to another country, or taking a holiday.
But plenty decide to pick up a second language as a passion project. So, if this sounds like you, think about what's going to light your fire.
Are you really into the Italian renaissance? Do you want to be able to read Russian newspapers? Is there a Polish link in your ancestry that you'd be interested in exploring more?
Having a genuine connection to a language might not make you learn faster, but it'll keep you motivated on those tough days when the basic vocabulary just isn't going in.
The method in the madness: how to start your language learning journey
You've picked a language, set your goals, and gotten inspired with some cultural references – but now what?
Are language lessons worth the money?
Once upon a time, the only option available for English speakers who fancied trying their hand at learning a language was pricey language lessons, which glued the eager learner to a strict classroom schedule and didn't really factor in the variety of learning styles we now know exist.
There's still certainly something to be said for traditional language lessons, mind you: going to an actual language school can speed your learning process along, because it ensures you get plenty of speaking practice, guided support from language teachers, and progressive language courses that reflect your needs.
Language immersion – that is, actually relocating to a country that uses your language of choice as a primary language – is without a doubt the best way to learn quickly and effectively, and there are plenty of language programs out there that will facilitate this, with a mix of classroom based language classes and real-life practice opportunities in the country of your choosing.
But before you book a flight, it's important to know that not all language schools are created equal, so a website like MyGoAbroad can be a valuable tool to help you find the best fit for you.
Whether you choose to go down this route or you prefer to self-teach, it's essential to work out how you learn best, and make sure to supplement your education with that framework.
You might be a visual learner, and aural learner, a practical learner, and so on – and taking the time to think back on how you've previously mastered other skills will help you get to the heart of how your brain works.
The importance of talking to native speakers
When sportspeople play against the top competitors, they tend to deliver their own personal best performances – even if they lose.
Likewise, young actors often step up to the next level when working alongside established veterans of stage and screen.
In all specialties, positioning yourself close to the pros will serve to raise your own standards, and that logic follows through to language learning, too.
If you only ever practice with another language learner, you'll both find yourselves stuck on a plateau, because it's unlikely that either will have the linguistic chops to hoist one another up to the next level yet.
If you take the time to find a native speaker as a conversational partner, though, you'll have to keep up with their more complex thoughts and turns of phrase.
You'll find yourself progressing much more quickly as a result. You'll probably also have more interesting conversations.
Are language apps a gimmick?
We live in a world ruled by apps, and that means that the market is pretty flooded as far as language learning goes.
Of course, not all language apps are created equally, so it's best to try your options on for size before you commit to a subscription. But when you find the right fit for your learning style, they can be a great supplement.
One problem that many language learners run into with popular game-style language apps is that they don't teach you how to converse naturally.
Instead, it's a lot of repetition of phrases and mix-and-match words, which is great for building vocabulary but doesn't train your ear to follow the ebb and flow of native-speaking conversation.
Lingopie aims to avoid these issues by providing you with plenty of content to consume in your target language.
From movies to binge-worthy TV shows, podcasts to audiobooks, you'll be able to listen, watch and learn in eight languages and pick up much more than the stock phrases you learned at school.
Give it a go.
How important is complex grammar, anyway?
Here's the truth of the matter: you can learn any language. Yes, it might have its tricky moments and yes, you will get frustrated sometimes, but you are capable of doing it.
But so many new language learners never get the chance to find out how true that is, because they get so bogged down by the thought of memorizing endless grammar rules that they give up.
The thing is, though, that the importance of grammar is sort of relative.
Yes, working knowledge of basic grammar is crucial if you want to be understood. After all, if a non-native English speaker started chatting to you, you'd struggle to understand what on earth they were saying if they were getting all the words right, but putting them in totally the wrong order and inflection.
But do you need to know advanced grammatical rules, the kinds that you might not even have fully mastered in your native language? Probably not.
It's wise to be realistic about your end goals. Being able to have interesting conversations and travel around a new country doesn't require a sophisticated grasp of grammar in the way that embarking on a Ph.D. abroad would. You'll just need sufficient structural accuracy to get your point across.
If you recognize that you're under no pressure at all to learn everything about your new language, you might find it a whole lot easier to crack on with the process.
Summing up: How long does it take to learn a language?
Though there's no way to predict how many hours it'll take you to learn a foreign language, it's absolutely possible to attain some basic functionality in just a matter of a short few months with the help of great teachers, well-timed holidays, and online resources.
To get started on your foreign language journey, sign up for your free trial of Lingopie now and enjoy a wealth of TV shows, movies, and audiobooks across eight different languages.
That's at least seven more languages than you know right now!