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How long does it take to learn a new language?

When talking about language learning this question comes up again and again. The truth is that there is no right answer, it depends on a lot of factors.

I started this blog seeing how far I could get in Spanish in 90 days and from knowing nothing to being close to intermediate is quite surprising to me, but then Spanish is supposedly one of the easier languages to learn. If I was to learn Mandarin or Russian, it might be a different story.  As I have mentioned before, it depends very much on motivation; are you learning because you want to or because you have to?

Learn A New Language - Time Who Cares
Image by M. Eyeself

Then there are all the different polyglots that claim to have the answer, saying you can become fluent in as little as three months. There’s no shortage of theories.

So how long does it take to learn a new language?

Since you are reading this, I assume that you’re interested in knowing more about this. Perhaps you’re not sure what language you’d like to learn – or maybe you’ve just started learning a new language and now you’d like to know how long it will take for you to be able to have an everyday conversation in your target language.

Like I said, there is no correct way to answer this question. For some people it might actually be possible to learn a new language fairly fast, while it will take others a lot longer. Whichever category you belong in, it’s a really good idea to have goals, long and short term.

You can start by asking yourself some of the following questions and then perhaps you can make your own assessment about how long it will take you.

1.Which language would you like to learn?

Steve Kaufmann has said a few times that once you have learned one language it’s easier to learn others, I assume that depends on the language. Like I stated in the beginning, depending on your native language there will be some that will be easier than others. If you already speak Spanish, then French and Italian will probably be pretty easy. Or if you speak Danish – like I do – picking up Swedish or Norwegian (that’s almost the same language, so maybe that doesn’t count) will take no time at all. Probably even as little as three months.

Learn a new language - Calendar
Image by Andreanna Moya

Italian and Spanish are slightly further removed from Danish and English but still similar enough that they can be learned (with enough time and dedication) in a relatively short time. However, Arabic and Mandarin would take someone like me ages. The completely different writing system that the learner has to get used to will obviously make things take longer.

2. How motivated are you?

Everything starts and ends with this question. If you haven’t got the motivation then learning a new language will be next to impossible. Learning a new language is a personal thing, so if you want it to go fast, you NEED TO BE MOTIVATED. There is simply no point in even starting if you don’t have the desire to learn. Nothing will sink in if you have no interest and you can study for years without learning anything.

That is why I keep saying that I prefer independent learning now that I have made a conscious decision to learn a language, rather than being made to learn something I wasn’t really into in school and by methods that meant squat to me.

Learn a new language - motivation
Image by Jeff Djevdet

The point is: It is very important that you have the motivation to learn the new language. If you can afford it, plan a trip somewhere they speak your target language, 3-6 months down the line. It’s a great motivator.

Say you live in Canada and want to learn Spanish, then plan a trip to Mexico or Puerto Rico and make small goals, such as “I want to talk to at least three people while I am there”. It will motivate you before going, so you’ll be able to communicate while there and, who knows, while there you might pick up a few things that you wouldn’t have otherwise, hopefully prompting you to continue after you get back.

3. Are you good at learning languages?

As much as all the polyglots would like to tell us that this doesn’t matter. I think it does, sorry folks. I am not saying that you can’t learn languages, because if you have a bag full of positivity and motivation, then sure you can. However if you don’t have a knack for learning a new language then it might take you longer than those that do. It shouldn’t put you off, perseverance will get you very far.

Learn a New Language - Albert Einstein
Image by Kyla Borg

The question; Am I good at learning languages? However, should at least be part of the equation when you think about how long it will take you. And try to be honest with yourself. If you’re already good at picking up languages, then you’ll probably be faster than most people.

Like I said earlier; anyone who already speaks Spanish, won’t need to spend forever learning Italian for example. Germans, Danes, Swedes and Dutch people will have less trouble learning English than those that don’t already know a so-called Germanic language.

So again, How Long Does It Take To Learn A New Language?

Once you’ve asked yourself the 3 questions above you may get a general idea, but there is not one single answer that fits all. It all depends on how motivated you are and if you do things that you enjoy, so learning the language doesn’t become a boring chore.

If it’s the very first time you are trying to learn a new language it could take a while, even with heaps of motivation and a knack for language learning.

On the other hand, if you’ve found a method that’s just right for you, whether it be LingQ, Pimsleur, Duolingo or language classes and you’re having a great time learning, you could get there in no time. There are many many things to take into consideration.

It all comes down to this: Motivation is everything! Who cares how long it takes.

 

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34 Comments

  • Leila
    June 2, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    This blog is great. You have some very good ideas and it helps motivate me to learn French.

    • Lykke
      June 2, 2015 at 1:20 pm

      Thank you 🙂

  • Steve
    June 3, 2015 at 10:39 am

    I think your 3rd point is spot on. Some people are just better at languages. I think Steve and other polyglots should address this point.

    • Lykke
      June 3, 2015 at 12:45 pm

      Here’s the thing though, if they did that they’d have a hard time convincing people that we can all learn languages. I am sure we can, but some of us myself included just don’t have the ear for it. So it will take so much longer. Someone like Benny for instance – whom I think is a cool dude and I read his blog – but he says we can learn a language in 3 months. I honestly don’t know that a lot of people can do that, if any, but that’s his claim to fame so he has to stick to it.

  • Peter
    June 3, 2015 at 11:43 am

    Hi again lykke, your fellow Danish buddy here:) you say that motivation is the most important. In my opinion creating the habit of learning the language each day, is what it is all about. Motivation is a feeling the comes and goes, but an ingrained habbit is really effective. So for example starting the same time each day with language learning could be really good.

    • Lykke
      June 3, 2015 at 12:48 pm

      Hi Peter. You do need to create a habit of learning every day, (I am terrible at that by the way) but if every day when your half hour or hour of learning comes around, and you want to run away and hide then what’s it all for?
      That’s why I believe language learning starts and ends with motivation. If you are super motivated, you’ll want to make a habit it for sure and then you’ll probably do it much faster as well.

  • Goyangi
    June 3, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    How does one notes if one is good at languages or not? I think it is difficult to find out, because if you had bad teacher or teaching material in the past, you may assume you are bad in learning languages. Maybe you just didn’t find the method, which works for you.

    @Peter You just need to get addicted to language learning, then you will always be motivated, because you need it, or else you would feel horrible.

    • Lykke
      June 3, 2015 at 2:08 pm

      If it’s your first time ever learning a language, you won’t know. However, if you’ve done it before and picked it up easily then you know you’re good at it. But the first time is when you discover if you have a knack for it and of course a motivation and interest in language learning.

  • Cecelia
    June 3, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    It usually takes a while, to be honest, because there is so much to a language, but you can change it from being a couple to 20 years ya know. 🙂

    • Lykke
      June 3, 2015 at 2:38 pm

      I like your positivity 🙂 (Sometimes I worry that it will take me 20 years to speak Spanish, but it better not).

  • Nicole
    June 3, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    You have to put in a very big number of hours, attending a 2 hour weekly class will not take you very far, if you can spend a couple of hours every day, then you’ll make progress. But for people who don’t have much time, they can still become bilingual by choosing Esperanto. There is an excellent free course now on the Duolingo website.

    • Lykke
      June 3, 2015 at 2:53 pm

      Worth looking into – thank you very much 🙂 That is often the issue; finding the time to study – especially if you have a full time job and other responsibilities.

  • Sean
    June 3, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    I believe your 3rd point has some truth to it (we can’t all be Olympians). However, just as we can all improve upon our athletic capabilities with proper training and a smart game plan, we can also improve upon the speed at which we can learn a language. In fact, when combined with the other factors of language learning (motivation, time dedication, smart content choices, etc.) the “natural ability” idea becomes obsolete. If person ‘A’ has a higher tendency to retain information, but puts in less time then person ‘B’, the former will obviously never achieve what the latter will, even if ‘B’ is putting in only slightly more effort. Language learning isn’t a race, it’s something everyone CAN complete over time WITH effort (something most people will agree on), but what they don’t understand is that the smarter you approach your “training”, the “faster” you will become. The only reason polyglots are able to learn so much so fast (relatively) is because A) they have discovered what methods (training) work for them as an individual instead of listening to “LEARN SPANISH FAST IN TWELVE DAYS OR LESS” or “5 LANGUAGE LEARNING SINS YOU ARE COMMITTING” and B) their results seem absolutely spectacular compared to the general population. Who’s to say their linguistic abilities aren’t the norm? In addition, these polyglots put in the time, effort, and motivation needed to carry out their goals. Anyone can do this and will achieve very similar results. Still, people will continue to struggle to learn languages because, like I said earlier, it takes effort.

    • Lykke
      June 4, 2015 at 10:49 am

      Hi Sean – I agree with what you are saying. My main point was really to tell people that it does take time. That’s the question people always ask:”How long will it take me?” and then they give up because they want to speak French,Spanish, English, Chinese, Uzbek, Kurdish or whatever the case may be YESTERDAY. When they realize it takes longer than that they give up. All I was trying to say was that, yes these polyglots have found methods that work for them, but a.) that does not mean it will work for everyone and b.) That’s how they make their money. The faster they claim you can learn a language the more popular they are. Except that doesn’t work for everyone. What works for most people is motivation to learn another language. If learning a language is something you want to get over with fast, then are you really motivated to do it? And are you doing it for the right reasons?
      After that rant, all I can say is that it seems we agree 🙂

      • Sean
        June 4, 2015 at 9:32 pm

        Not a rant, just have a lot to say ;). I’m just trying to put it out there that more preparation = faster results, no matter the person

        • Lykke
          June 5, 2015 at 11:00 am

          I meant my rant. I really appreciate your comments, I really really do. I am happy if someone reads what I write 🙂 Have a great weekend Sean 🙂

    • fhaubert
      June 5, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      I couldn’t agree more Sean! It is far easier to say: “I have a great difficult for learning A” or “I’m not good at B”. And it is true for ANYTHING you want to learn. If you have a difficult time learning something, SPEND MORE TIME DOING IT! Try a different method! Stop complaing and do something, and YOU WILL GET THE RESULTS.

  • Carol
    June 3, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Thank you for the blog. It makes all the difference to feel that I am learning with my fellow students! I really like the comment about studying at about the same time everyday and I am going to try this!

    • Lykke
      June 5, 2015 at 2:07 pm

      If that works for you, you should give it a try 🙂 It may be tough to fit learning in at the exact same time every day, depending on how busy you are. I like the LingQ community too, makes you feel like you’re not alone and you can reach out to other language learners, which is always nice.

  • Thierry
    June 3, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    Hi, you could have shorter your blog by telling: “How much does it take?” ….” “it depend…some times…” 😉

    I agree that we are not equally talented to learn languages and I compare this knack with a musical ear.
    Not everyone can play guitar easily or simply sing right and get the rhythm. I do thing that a musical ear help a lot on pickup up pronunciation , language rhythm.
    For those like me that don’t really have this gift, learning takes longer.
    Bye and keep up the good work.

    • Lykke
      June 4, 2015 at 10:41 am

      Me – that is me – do you know how many times I have been trying to learn to play the guitar? More than I can count (but then again math isn’t one of my favourite subjects either). I have given up and my neighbours thank me 🙂 If my blog post was that short it wouldn’t do very well in Google Analytics – that’s a thing you know 😉

  • Amit
    June 3, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    I miss a definition of the term “learn a new language”. I mean that it is not clear what is the level that one has to reach before one can claim himself to “know the language”. Lonmg time ago I have leaved in France for three years. I spoke almost no French word before, and I was motivated and made a serious try to learn, and indeed I can talk and read reasonably, but I can not state myself to “know the language”. Not in the deep sense of the word. there are many layers of the language where my level is poor, and that’s after three years in a native environment, so I just wonder.

    • Lykke
      June 4, 2015 at 10:38 am

      Yes I suppose you are right. I think you can claim to know a language once you are able to have a meaningful conversation in it or read a book and understanding it. Even after years of living in English speaking countries there are times when I just don’t get it. I understand the words that come out of peoples mouths but not always the cultural connotations – and maybe I never will. A language is more than words – it’s part of a history and a culture or cultures. Look at us getting all philosophical 🙂

  • shima
    June 4, 2015 at 3:00 am

    Hi , thanks for your blog
    I’m Kurd and my mother language is Kurdish
    I lives in Iran and I know Persian too

    I want to ( have to ) learn English for TOEFL exam

    I spend very very time in many years ago to learn English but I’m beginner yet
    I just know about 2000-3000 English word 🙁
    I have to learn English for TOEFL in 6-7 month but I don’t know how I doing

    • Lykke
      June 4, 2015 at 10:31 am

      Hi Shima

      2000-3000 words is a good foundation. Keep at it. Kurdish is not related to English. It is very different so I think you are doing well. I can’t imagine how long it would take me to learn Kurdish – Probably a long long time. Judging from your writing you are doing pretty well. Don’t be discouraged. 6-7 months is quite a while. Try dedicating half an hour (or longer if you’ve got the time) each day and I think you’ll do fine in your test. Good luck Shima. Let me know how you do 🙂

      • shima
        June 8, 2015 at 3:12 am

        HI Lykke

        thanks a lot 🙂
        you make me happy 🙂

        • Lykke
          June 8, 2015 at 1:59 pm

          That’s great to hear 🙂

  • Zihaad
    June 4, 2015 at 6:03 am

    Hi Lykke,

    Can you shed some light on your daily habits or times that you dedicate to language learning daily?

    Thanks

    • Lykke
      June 4, 2015 at 10:26 am

      Hi Zihaad – I try to dedicate at least half an hour, but you should check out some of the polyglots – like Steve Kaufmann or Benny Lewis – they don’t agree on a lot of things, but they have methods of language learning that REALLY works for them. It is a good idea to listen a lot in your downtime, say you are on your way to work, you can listen to a podcast or songs in your target language. Steve Kaufmann is a fan of reading a lot, even before he understands a lot of words. Put in as much time as you can whenever the opportunity presents itself. Hope that answers your question 🙂

  • Islombek Abdullaev
    June 4, 2015 at 7:53 am

    Dear Lykke, first of all thank you for your blog! I suppose that almost everyone is biased in terms of language learning. For instance as you mentioned Benny, he’s convinced he could learn a leanrning in three months, whereas for some other people the same target may take several years. So, it’s a matter of personal interest, engagement and possibility. Besides, I indisputably agree with you in terms of one’s knack for language learning, what’s more that polyglots have been skeptical about it. However, I would think that there should be inclination towards a language if one wants to learn it fast and efficiently. As for me, English is a second language that I’ve been learning after Russian, yet my native language is Uzbek)

    • Lykke
      June 4, 2015 at 9:54 am

      Thanks for your comment. Uzbek – geez I need to read a book. I have never even heard of it, sorry. I will know more about it after today 🙂 My point was exactly that it is individual. Some people (I think the minority) will pick up a language just like that and others will take longer. In Scandinavia and The Netherlands people pick up English rather fast, whereas in other European countries it takes people longer. That’s not because they are worse at languages, but because we’re surrounded by English at all time in Scandinavia. The movies aren’t dubbed and the music we listen to is often in English also. So the time it takes to learn a language depends on the circumstances.

  • ColibrEve
    June 5, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Hi Likke,

    To my point of view, they are people that will have better senses to rapidly learn a new language.

    From what I have noticed with my other friends and my boyfriend son who have learned English, people who can remind a lot of songs melodies will for sure learn faster than people who do not have too much of hearing (listening) sense. In French we say that we are ‘’auditif’’. (Auditivo) en Español.

    People that are stronger with their sight sense, who are more visual will for sure be better at writing then speaking, and they will probably make fewer mistakes then the others that are auditory persons.

    However, if somebody really wants to learn a language, with a strong will power it will for sure be possible.

    Because I am here to improve my English, please let me know if I have make mistakes or bad sentences with the wrong grammatical structure.

    ColibrÈve is my nickname I created with the bird named hummingbird, which is called colibri in French (El mismo en Español: Colibrí) and my first name Ève.

    Thank you Likke for your article, for now on I liked the entire one you wrote.

    Have a nice day !

    • Lykke
      June 5, 2015 at 11:08 am

      Thank you so much Ève. I think your English is great – how long have you been learning? My first language isn’t English either 🙂 It’s Danish.
      I agree with you, people have different ways of learning. When my mother was writing her Master’s thesis back in the 90s, I remember she wrote about a theory of different kinds of intelligence, such as musical intelligence, social intelligence, mathematical intelligence etc. Can’t remember them all. But if that is true, which I like to think it is, then it means that we’re all smart in our own way and we all learn differently and that coud be another reason why some people learn faster than others too.

      I hope you will keep reading and commenting – even when you don’t agree.

      Have a lovely weekend 🙂

  • Michelle
    September 2, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Hi Lykke

    I agree with you when you said the time it takes to learn a language depends on the circumstances and motivation. I’m from Puerto Rico and here, you know my birth language is Spanish, but for History reasons… (named EEUU) we have a little skills in English and also some people are “bilingual” (know both languages) out there. Our circumstances: since we start school as children, a class named “English” is in our tuition every year until we graduated from high school and in college there are some English classes too. But it does not means that we know English the same way we know Spanish, because in our homes the language we use every day is Spanish, and TV or radio are in Spanish too. We are forced to learn English but the reality is that it does not work if we do not are interested or motivated to learn. The circumstances around us affect everything. Thank you Likke for your article, it was interesting. I’m sorry for the grammatical and sentences.

    I would like to talk to you some day so I could improve my english at the same time if you are interested in spanish. Cuando quieras practicar español me dices 🙂

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