Over the next five weeks, check out The Five-Week Linguist Crash Course. Each week, you will see a summary of the fundamentals of learning a new language. In this first week, find out the basics of learning a new language, to include how to define fluency, different categories of languages and how long it takes to learn each one.
What Is Fluent? Check out this graphic to get an idea of what it means to learn a language well enough to be considered fluent in any language.
The bubble starts with simple words. We then progress through phrases, sentences, connected sentences, etc., as we build skill and fluency. It is a continuum. The language we can produce becomes richer, stronger and more robust as we build proficiency.
The bubble that talks about words and sentences becoming paragraphs is approximately the B2 level or the ACTFL intermediate high. A lot of people who studied a foreign language at university reached this level. It’s decent and respectable level of fluency. If you want to work professionally in a country, you need to be up towards those connected paragraphs in extended speech. However, it all counts. You don’t have to be fluent to be a successful language learner. Aim for progress, not perfection.
How Long Does It Take? Different categories of languages take different amounts of time to learn. Languages that are close to English, think neighbors of England, are in category one. Languages that are much more difficult and far away from England, think Korean, Japanese, et cetera, take three to four times as long to reach the same level of fluency. Factor that into your expectations and timeline for reaching goals.
See these statistics based on the Foreign Service Institute’s Research on how long it takes to learn different languages in their programs to train State Department employees for life abroad.
Category I Languages: 24-30 weeks (600-750 class hours)
Languages more similar to English: Danish, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Romanian, Spanish (24 weeks). French (30 weeks).
Category II Languages: Approximately 36 weeks (900 class hours)
German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, Swahili
Category III Languages: Approximately 44 weeks (1100 class hours)
“Hard languages” – Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English. This list is not exhaustive.
Albanian, Armenian, Amharic, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Kazakh, Khmer, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mongolian, Nepali, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Somali, Tagalog, Tajiki, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Turkmen, Ukranian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese
Category IV Languages: 88 weeks (2200 class hours)
“Super-hard languages” – Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.
Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Japanese, Korean
From https://www.state.gov/key-topics-foreign-service-institute/foreign-language-training/ Accessed August 10, 2019
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