Often language learners will wonder how long it takes them to master, or at least become fluent in a foreign language, especially when deciding whether to start studying a language or not. And from the point of view of time management, to a certain extent that is a logical thing to want to know.
A quick search around the internet shows a variety of articles on this topic, claiming it will take X years to master a certain language, given you study Y hours a day. Another common thing is trying to rank various languages to determine which are harder than others to learn. In many cases, the results presented are based on real data, at least in part.
I think there is something inherent in our nature to be attracted to numbers, especially when they are put in the context of being scientifically determined. But––as you might have heard in a well-known adage––statistics can easily mislead us to believe in some conclusion that is far from the truth. This doesn’t mean that the scientists or analysts have a bad intention, as they may be fooling themselves. After working with data in some form or another for many years, it is my firm belief that the more complex a system is, and the more variables involved, the more difficult it is to form an interpretation that will predict future behavior with high accuracy. And the human mind is one of the most complex systems known to us.
The domain of language acquisition is especially tricky, since there is the matter of what really makes one “fluent” or considered to have “mastered” a language. There is also the fact that people have very different ways of learning and different inherent capacities, not to mention different interests and motivations.
I think there are two main factors that primarily determine how long it takes to get “good enough” in a language:
- The amount of time being exposed to a language in an academic sense, assuming you are frequently learning new things and not constantly reviewing old things.
- The amount of time being “immersed” in a language, meaning you are in an environment where you are forced to comprehend and communicate using that language (or a close simulation of such an environment).
The first of these is easy to obtain (you can do it easily as long as you have internet access), but doesn’t guarantee quick progression. The second is much harder, but will generally give you much quicker progress. Good instructors will try to integrate both of these types of learning into their classes.
Having said that, I would like to give a warning regarding the idea that “more time means fluent faster”. The problem is that if we force ourselves to learn a language, we risk getting frustrated or burn out, and quitting or taking a break. Taking a short break is fine, but breaks of months to years make it more likely we will never return to the language, as we have forgotten so much in that time.
I’m never going to try and give you some number that represents how long it “should” take you to master a language. I will say that the minimum to get some sort of fluency in a limited domain (say, daily conversation) could be a few months, assuming you are speaking from day to night, very motivated, and have good inherent ability towards learning the language in question. A more reasonable average for some level of fluency is several years (I’d say at least 5-7), though some people may spend decades of their life and never become what is commonly considered as “fluent”.
I also think there is some value in those rankings that say X language is easier to learn than Y language, for native speakers of Z language. However, that assumes you spend the same amount of time, learn with the same types of materials, and have the same level of motivation. This is something that I feel is really hard to test empirically, since you can’t just learn X and then Y, and compare how long it takes, since the more languages you know, the more easily you can pick up new ones. This is because the more languages you have under your belt, the more you can look to them for similarities with a new language, whether that is a grammar rule or an aspect of pronunciation.
To conclude, I don’t think it’s important to try and figure out how many years it will take you to learn a language. A common pattern is you spend X amount of time doing the first learning style I mentioned above (academic, non-immersion), and then you eventually move to somewhere where that language is spoken and you spend more time in the 2nd style (immersion). Generally, the latter method will yield such quicker progress that eventually the amount of non-immersion study time won’t have mattered much––again, assuming that you are motivated.
Rather than trying to gauge the clock, I would instead look for language resources that challenge you, while providing enjoyment and satisfaction as you gradually progress. Also, try to put your language skills to use whenever possible (instead of shying away because you are afraid of making a mistake), but at the same time be humble about your ability. Just because you’ve studied a few months (or years), doesn’t guarantee you will be at a certain level.