How Long Does It Take You to Learn a New Language?

 STA_4339

Yes! The question that I hear on a daily basis finally gets to be addressed!

For one, let me begin by saying this: often I get asked this question point-blank, as if most people do not realize that languages that differ from those you already know actually take more time to learn.

What I usually say in one sentence is: “it depends. I learned Solomon Islands Pijin to a conversational level in nearly two weeks. There are those languages, like Greenlandic and Cornish, that I’ve been struggling with for YEARS and while I can speak them to various degrees, I wouldn’t really call myself consistently fluent.”

The short answer is that there are just too many factors to list in how much time goes into a new project, and further complicated by the fact that people measure timelines for skill acquisition in years rather than hours (Benny Lewis wrote on this topic, so I should definitely give him credit).

You’ve probably all heard it before from people with self-defeating excuses. “I’ve studied language X for Y years, and I still can’t speak any of it”. I can guarantee you that if you were quantifying your studies in hours rather than in vaguely defined “years”, you would see where the issue lies.

I have NEVER heard: “I’ve put Y hours into language X, and I’m still struggling with it”

Interestingly, in my case that statement has somewhat been true with Greenlandic, but obviously I think that it has to do with my study methods (as well as the handicaps that come in place by speaking an extremely rare language that is related by family ties to no other language that I know well).

If I were to look at the YEARS I’ve put into it, some assorted timelines would be like this:

 

Hebrew (Modern): January 2009 – Present

Yiddish: August 2008 – Present

Spanish: August 2003 – November 2015 (when I got Lyme Disease) revived July 2016 – Present

Finnish: April 2013 – Present

Cornish: December 2014 – Present

Lao: August 2017 – Present

Solomon Islands Pijin: April 2016 – Present

Faroese: July 2014 – November 2015 + March 2017 – August 2017 (currently paused)

 

If the sheer amount of time I “put” into the language in terms of YEARS would indicate how well I spoke the language, Spanish would be my second-best language and Lao my weakest. But it actually isn’t the case (I have neglected Faroese to the degree that my very meager Lao is now better than it…)

Does more time help? Most definitely, but also the quality of time put into it is more helpful. My three weeks in the Yiddish Farm program did more for my Yiddish abilities than anything I did in high school did for Spanish.

I’m not saying anything new when I’m saying the following: (1) measure your progress in hours, not years and (2) measure the quality of those hours (the more ACTIVELY engaged you are, the more results you’ll see). Benny Lewis has said very much of the same thing.

But you’re probably come for something else, namely “how long will it take me to get fluent?”

And, in a pure sense, I can’t answer that question, despite the fact that I get it asked so often (or perhaps because of it).

The more time you put into it, the sooner you’ll expect results. So one thing I would recommend is set aside about 30 minutes every day for 1-2 languages you’d like to get better at and you’ll start to see results build up. This is not something I learned just from Olly Richards but also from my parents who wanted me to practice piano every day for 30 minutes as a kid (except on Shabbat).

It also depends on more factors, such as what sort of other jobs you have or whether you have a family to attend to in any capacity (not also to mention other languages you may need to maintain on the side).

And, of course, those related to languages you already know will come more easily to you.

Solomon Islands Pijin is very close to English but Cornish is not, so I was capable of “breezing” through one of them and not the other. Could I have learned Cornish to conversational fluency in two weeks? Maybe if I did absolutely nothing else aside from what was required of me to keep living or if I was on an extremely relaxing vacation and had more than an hour to spare to the task every day…the idea of Daniel Tammet learning Icelandic in a week isn’t far-fetched to me in the slightest (and if I knew the in-depth methods of his study, it would probably be even less surprising).

Another thing I haven’t really touched on is the fact that people learn differently. 30 hours of total study may bring various different personalities to different levels.

 

So Jared, HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME?

 

(Because I know how much people really, REALLY hate overcomplicated answers…)

For a language closely related to one you know, if you devote 30 minutes to an hour every day for three months, you’ll be able to have small talk conversational about your life. For a different one, if you do the same, probably expect about four-to-five months. If the language you are learning uses a new alphabet, it make take you another two weeks to fully master it in all of its forms, or a month if it is hellishly complicated (although there are some people who may be okay with being “illiterate” on the short-term or even the long-term. After all, even nowadays I’ve met people who can’t write in their native language but can write in other languages!)

Then there is the issue for a language being EXTREMELY closely related to one you already know, in which case two weeks or even ONE WEEK would suffix. (English and Spanish aren’t as closely related as Danish and Norwegian are, to give you an idea).

And then of course there is another issue (as what happened with Cornish during…well, almost all of the time I’ve been “studying” it) in which you can’t make the full time commitments or big pauses cause you to forget things. Remember: the more you falter in your commitments, the more “days” you’ll need to catch up.

But can you really commit yourself to thirty minutes every day? I’ve encountered so many acquaintances that usually get stuck in the beginner or the intermediate plateau for a very long time. Often this happens because of being stuck to a set of materials without diversifying fully into the great spectrum of usages that a native speaker would have. (Imagine: if there was one person learning a language from three learning-books and another one learning it from those same books and also TV shows, music, and conversational opportunities, which one would have the advantage?)

I have a feeling that people who read my musings are determined people indeed. You’ll be fluent in your dream language before you know it!

Go! Go! Go!

One thought on “How Long Does It Take You to Learn a New Language?

  1. lukeonlanguages says:

    The problem when people ask this question is two things.

    Firstly they don’t define what they mean by “learn a language” and secondly they assume that once you get to a certain level you stop learning and that’s the end of it.

    Like you said you can get to a conversational in Spanish in say 3 months, a lot of people would think “ah ok so it takes 3 months to learn Spanish”. In their head they think that after 3 months they will be bassically at the same point as English and it will be a done deal, but that is not how it works at all. We never stop learning even in our native tongue.

    If you define “learn a language” as being truly fluent on a range of diverse topics and being able to pick up the majority of going on in TV/movies/media ect, if you dedicate an hour a day to study plus immersing yourself and speaking on top of that you would expect maybe 6-12 months for someone with a close language like Spanish. and for something far apart like Chinese probably 2-3 years!

    If you define it as conversational you could do it in a 3 month time frame for just about any language if you bypass the writing system.

    Sign, no simple answer to this question, at least we can agree on that. My advise would be to stop trying to rush it and just enjoy the process

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s