How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language? But Actually?

by Published

As fabulous as Paz Vega makes it seem in Spanglish, it takes a bit more than listening to a tape, learning dog commands, and succumbing to a budding romance to become fluent in another language. Don’t we all wish it could be that easy!

hourglass sitting in rocks

The sand keeps dropping through the hourglass and you have a million questions: How long does it FOR REAL take to learn a language? Where are you supposed to find the time to learn a language? How many languages can I learn at once (if you’re cray…)? 

So how long does it take to learn a language? Depending on who you ask, becoming legitimately fluent can take totally different amounts of time, and ultimately it’s up the person learning it to decide how long it should take. Some hopeful polyglots jump right in and immerse themselves without ever having taken a language class before, while others dip their toes in for years before fully committing. There is no wrong way to learn a language, except not going for it 100%!

What the experts say

Ask an expert how long it takes to learn a language, and they’ll probably give you some variation of mucho tiempo / viele Zeit / Много времени / beaucoup de temps / molto tempo / 多くの時間...aka A LOT OF TIME. No shortcuts for fluency, unfortunately! The only real way to expedite the process is to become as immersed as possible and dedicate yourself. Simply put, the less you surround yourself with the language, the longer the process will take. So, if you really want killer language skills, put on your adventure pants and get out there!

What we at GoAbroad think

Most language nubes approach it from a perspective of “if I study enough flashcards and watch enough Netflix auf deutsch, I’ll eventually get there!” Wrong! We at GoAbroad recognize that if you want to really speak another language, you have to really put in the effort. We like to view the process as five definitive stages to language learning, and unfortunately, you can’t just study for a few months and half-ass your way to fluency. If it were that easy, everyone would be bilingual!

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So, let’s break it down...how long does it take to learn a language? 

Stage One: “Maybe I’ll Learn [Insert Language Here]” 

Considering French, or maybe asking yourself “How long does it take to learn Italian, the language of pizza and Mariokart?” If you’re daydreaming of ordering dumplings in perfect Mandarin or wowing your parents’ friends with your Swahili at a party, you’re head over heels in stage one of language learning. This is known as the “honeymoon phase” of language-learning. Within one to three months, this romantic idea of being able to naturally, eloquently, and easily switch between languages will have been popped, and you’ll start to realize how long of a process it will be to learn a language There’s no quick-fix for fluency, so if you’re not willing to bring out the flashcards and textbooks, you’ll never be able to parlez français!

Man in hat carrying baskets of bright colored grass/flowers in front of a bright yellow wall

Immersion in the sights, sounds, and colors of your host country (Guatemala, we hope!) will only make your language learning more efficient. 

Stage Two: “This is Harder than I Thought” 

You’ve gotten committed and loaded all the language apps, games, and online tutorials you can find and started chowing down on that language platter. You’ll be super jazzed how fast you’re picking up vocab, phrases, and even full sentences, until you go to order your ramen in Japanese and totally freeze up. Usually a month in after using Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, you will start to realize that language apps and games just won’t cut it, and there’s only so far you’re going to get with casual practice. Unfortunately, learning how to actually apply the vocab and grammar isn’t something you can get from just repeating words back at a robot in your app, so it’s time to enroll in an actual language class! 

Stage Three: “Okay, Time to Take a Real Class”

You enrolled in a language class once a week after work and are stoked the more complex grammar and sentence structures you’re able to put together. You feel yourself rapidly learning and gaining fluency, and become super confident in your language abilities...until you talk to the Guatemalan who works at your company in Spanish and can’t understand a word he says back. Major blow to the language ego!

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Taking a language class at your school or within your local community is better than nothing, but after a few months of weekly grammar lessons, your learning will start to plateau. Profesora Courtney is great, but it’s time to ramp it up and start learning from a native speaker. Depending on the region you’re living in, chances are your part-time teacher is not a native speaker, so sign yourself up for a real language class if you have the option. Nuances of a foreign language can only be taught from a native or very fluent speaker who has spent significant time abroad, so unless your teacher falls into either of these categories, you’re not doing yourself any favors!

Stage Four: “Okay, Okay, I Should Learn [Insert Language Here] Abroad”

Your language classes with a native speaker have worked, and you can feel yourself being thrown into the proficiency field. You’ve broken through your plateau, and you’re learning tons of new vocab and starting to understand how the language fits together. The only problems, though, are your accent and speed of comprehension and response. Even after months of taking classes with a native speaker, it feels like no matter how hard you try to roll your “r's”, you still can’t even say gracias without sounding like a gringo, and it takes you a minute to put together a response when someone talks to you in the new language. No bueno!

The absolute best way to gain any type of proficiency is to study the language abroad, no arguments! Nothing in the world can replace day-to-day interactions with locals, physically living and functioning in a different culture, and constantly pushing your brain to keep up with everyone else. After a taste at learning from a native speaker, you will quickly understand how much easier it is to grow when you’re getting your info right from the source, so you’ll be convinced of how beneficial it will be to totally immerse yourself. Time to buy that plane ticket and study abroad!

Canals in Colmar, France at sunset

Remember that yes you can(al) rock your French language learning abroad. *breaks off end of baguette dramatically to punctuate point*

Stage Five: “I Can Hold My Own, But I Want to be Fluent”

You’ve studied abroad for a semester or year and are totally hooked on life abroad. Mission accomplished! Now that you’ve seen first-hand how rapidly you can really grow when you give yourself the chance to rise to the occasion, you’re desperate for ways to stay abroad and keep learning. Buckle up, because you’ve just committed to a life of language learning and should probably (definitely) look into living abroad full time!

Fluency is not gained overnight, and even after studying abroad for a semester or year, you probably still won’t feel fluent. Proficient, yes, but fluent, no. Look into living abroad on a longer-term scale, with either migrating all of your studies to an international setting or interning/working abroad to really push your language-learning ventures over the edge.

[Are Language Immersion Programs All They’re Cracked Up to Be?]

4 recommended language schools to help you expedite the process

How long it takes to learn a language is really dependent on the type of school you study at, so check out any of these top choices to make the process quicker!

1. Maximo Nivel — Latin America

A leader in the world of español, Maximo Nivel has offered a wide range of language programs in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru since 2003. With a focus on Spanish language immersion, this provider includes internship placements, TEFL certifications, adventure and culture travel, and native Spanish language and culture programs. Get immersed in the Spanish-speaking world in Latin America today!

Chilly landscape of Great Wall of China

Sometimes language learning feels like scaling a huge impenetrable wall, but having walked along the Great Wall, you know you can overcome it! 


2.
Languages Abroad — North America, Europe, Africa

Basically a powerhouse in the language learning field, Languages Abroad offers programs all over the world for a ton of different languages. The key to fluency is to get outside of the standard classroom, which is exactly what this provider does with its volunteer opportunities, specifics such as business language classes, multi-destination packages to learn a language in several countries, and even TEFL/TESOL certifications.

3. Center for Study Abroad—Asia

Want to learn a language but don’t have an unlimited budget to fund it? Not a problem...check out CSA’s low-cost programs! CSA focuses on providing budget study abroad opportunities for high schoolers, college students, and adults alike from all over the world. Study abroad for a semester, quarter, year, summer, month, or even just a week with CSA, and with options in Taipei, Hsinchu, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Nanjing, this is a great program to pick up one of the many Chinese dialects!

4. American University of Beirut—Middle East

Looking to study a critical language in a safe, exciting, and cost-effective way? Head overseas with Languages Abroad to study Arabic! With Arabic language programs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Rabat, or Amman and tons of opportunities to volunteer, travel, and become immersed in the local culture, this provider is a top choice! 

[None of these jump out at you? No problemo, amigo! Browse all language schools abroad!]

Clouds over Ehden, Lebanon

Learning a new language may put your head straight in the clouds, but stick with it and soon you’ll be writing entire letters in Arabic/French/Chinese/Spanish/etc. 

More resources to help you learn a language

Picking a route to study a language abroad can sometimes feel overwhelming with all of the options available, so let us help you narrow it down! Be sure to read program reviews, talk to alumni, and use your school’s study abroad advisors to pick the program that best fits your needs.

Learning languages has never been so fun, huh?!

So, how long does it take to learn a language on average?

The short answer: you’ll never know until you try! Speed of fluency is different for everyone, but one thing is for sure: you can’t get there without time, dedication, patience, and the most important piece...taking it abroad!  

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