Learning a language isn’t easy. Chances are, you spent years sitting in a high school classroom studying one, but still aren’t even close to mastering it. That’s because learning a language takes months and even years of dedicated study. Of course, this just gets you to conversational. If you want to be fluent, that will most likely require complete immersion in a foreign country.
There are a lot of different languages (over 6,000!) and they range from easy to difficult when it comes to learning them as a native English speaker. Some, like Spanish, are easy to pick up. Others, like Arabic and Mandarin have completely different alphabets and symbols and are much more difficult to master.
Another factor in calculating how long it takes to learn a language is how you choose to learn it. Are you going to take classes? Use an app or online program? Or travel to a new country to learn a language through immersion? All of these have different timelines for moving from elementary, to conversational, to fluent.
How long does it take to learn a language? This article is going to break down everything you need to know. First, we’ll look at the differences between basic, conversational, and fluent levels. Next, we will tackle the most commonly used languages and rank them from easiest to hardest to master. Finally, we’ll present multiple options to use for learning a new language, to help you choose which one is the most efficient for your learning style.
Language Levels: A Breakdown
So, you want to learn a new language, but what exactly does that mean? Do you want to be able to get around in a new country for a week or two? Do you need to be able to talk with new friends or family members in their native languages? Or are you required to master a language enough to work full time in a foreign country?
Each of these is a different level of language learning, and each takes a different amount of time to master. The US Government describes the different levels of language learning in their Interagency Language Roundtable scale (IRL). This scale rates a person’s language abilities on a score of 0 to 5. A zero means they have absolutely no understanding of the language, while a score of five means someone is native or bilingual. The scale grades on multiple criteria, such as speaking, writing, listening, and reading. On the IRL scale, it is possible to be proficient in one category while only elementary in another.
According to the IRL scale, 0 is no proficiency, 1 is Elementary Proficiency, 2 is Limited Working Proficiency, 3 is General Professional Proficiency, 4 is Advanced Professional Proficiency and 5 is Functionally Native. What does it mean to learn a language at each of these levels?
Elementary and Limited Working Proficiency
Learning a language at a basic level is the first step for any new language learner. Speaking a language at an elementary level means it is possible to have simple conversations, like ordering a meal or asking for directions.
Language learners at an elementary and limited working proficiency levels usually are not able to form sentences in the past or future tenses, and do not know or understand colloquial terms or slang phrases. Every sentence and translation is taken literally, and things like metaphors are often misunderstood.
General and Advanced Professional Proficiency
General and Advanced proficiency is the second step in language learning and is more conversational than the first. Understanding and speaking a language at these levels means mastering a much wider range of vocabulary and sentence structures.
People who speak a language at a conversational level can join most discussions, even on more complicated matters like politics or the sciences. Mastering a language to a general and advanced proficiency level means a solid understanding of all tenses, rules, and language patterns.
Becoming fluent in a language is the goal of every language learner. This level of functionally native is different from conversational in small but important ways. A fluent speaker not only speaks as well as a native speaker, they also understand the cultural differences and dialects of each country.
For example, someone who is functionally native in English can carry on a conversation. They also know the separate spellings that differentiate between American and British English (ex: color and colour), and correctly use the slight vocabulary changes like the term vacation instead of holiday, or chips instead of crisps.
How Long Does it Take to Learn a Language Fluently?
There are different ways to measure the time it will take to learn a language to the functionally native level. Some different options are the American Council of Teaching Foreign Language Guidelines. These guidelines, like the IRL scale, break down the different levels of language learning into many different steps. Additionally, others use the Common European Framework for Reference of Language guidelines instead. Both explain what fluency means. But how can you reach it?
When it comes to the specific hours needed to reach fluency, using the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) difficulty rankings are essential. They rank languages based on difficulty and list the exact hours needed to learn them. Their table rankings are shown below.
Becoming fluent in a language is difficult but not impossible. If you’re learning a language already, take a short language test at Cactus Language to see where you fall on the proficiency scale. If you have not chosen a language to learn yet, use our ranking of languages by difficulty level below to help choose which one is the best for you.
The Easiest and Hardest Languages to Learn
Some languages are easy to learn for native English speakers, and others are notoriously difficult. Alphabets, conjugations, vocabulary, and more all factor into making a language easy or hard to learn.
According to this list of the most widely spoken languages, the top six languages to consider learning are Mandarin, Spanish, English, Hindu, Arabic, and Portuguese. If you want to be widely understood and open up many new travel destinations, learning one of these languages is a good start. Which ones are the easiest and hardest to learn for native English speakers?
Spanish is a perfect starter language for any native English speaker who wants to learn a new language. Spanish is the easiest language on this list for many reasons.
First, both English and Spanish have Latin roots. This means that there are a lot of vocabulary words that are the same in each language, like “international” in English and “internacional” in Spanish. Simple, right? Another reason why Spanish is easy to learn is because their sentence structures are very similar to English, giving it a more familiar feel when speaking and listening.
However, Spanish does have more conjugations and tenses than English, which can be difficult for some to remember and master. How long does it take to learn Spanish? The Foreign Service Institute ranks languages by difficulty and estimates that you can learn Spanish in 600 hours over six months, meaning you would need about 24 hours of classroom study per week.
How long does it take to learn Portuguese? According to the FSI list, mastering Portuguese to a fluent level takes the same amount of time as Spanish, with 600 hours of study during six months.
However, we classify learning Portuguese as more difficult than Spanish for a few reasons. The first is because it is very different from English in both grammar and spelling. Also, most English speakers find it tough to get the hang of Portuguese symbols, like the tilde and multiple different accent marks.
Third on our list of languages is Hindi. Hindi is spoken by over 400 million people and is a great language choice for any new learner. However, it is much more difficult than Spanish and Portuguese. The FSI ranking estimates that it takes 1100 hours over ten months to learn to speak Hindi.
What makes Hindi so difficult for native English speakers? First and foremost, it works with a completely different alphabet, with 33 consonants and 11 vowels. In writing, it is difficult to learn how to connect the letters. In speaking, the challenge lies in incorporating new sounds that are not present in English.
Arabic is the second most difficult language for English speakers to learn. It is the fifth and highest FSI category and requires 22 months (almost two years) and 2200 hours to learn.
One of the most difficult aspects of studying the Arabic language is learning to read and write from right to left across a page instead of left to right. The extra letters and new sounds (like “ayn” for example) are also notoriously difficult for English speakers to pronounce.
Mandarin is the most difficult language to learn. Like Arabic, Mandarin takes 22 months and 2200 hours to reach proficiency. However, there is one important factor that sets Mandarin apart as the most difficult language in the world to learn: their symbols.
The Mandarin language has over 50,000 characters. Instead of using a small alphabet to mix and match known letters to create a word, the Chinese people have a separate symbol for each word, and each one needs to be learned and committed to memory. Not only is this a long and difficult task, it is also so different from the way that we perceive languages as English speakers that it is hard to wrap our heads around, especially when learning Mandarin as an adult.
How long does it take to a learn a language? After reading this breakdown, it’s clear that the true answer is: “it depends.” Some languages are easier to learn like Spanish and Portuguese, while others are much more difficult, like Arabic and Mandarin. Which language you choose to master will significantly affect how long it takes to learn it.
What are the Different Ways to Learn a New Language?
For many of us, the days of being trapped inside a high school classroom are long gone. And although learning a language in a classroom is still a popular choice, there are other ways to learn them as well. Outside of daily or weekly lessons at a language institute, you can also learn a language online through an app like Clozemaster, or even learn a language through full immersion.
How to Learn a Language Through Lessons
Learning a language through language courses is an easy way to get started on your language journey.
There are many benefits to learning a learning a language in a structured course. First, it offers accountability. It is much easier to skip a day or two of language learning on an app than it is to skip a physical lesson. Language lessons also provide homework that gives you the opportunity to practice your skills. Knowing you have a due date also makes it much harder to procrastinate or skip the work.
However, one of the major cons to choosing to learn a language with lessons it the price. In the United States, Spanish lessons can often cost $20 or $30 per class.
One way around this is to purchase online language lessons. Some of the cheapest countries in the world to learn Spanish are Bolivia and Guatemala. Even if you can’t pack up and make the move to Latin America, you can instead sign up for skype lessons from teachers in the country. These usually cost around $5 or $8 per lesson, which is much more affordable for most Americans.
Another problem with learning a language through lessons, that you won’t have with Clozemaster, is the lack of personalization. Often, language lessons are in large classrooms and group settings. This lack of individualized planning and interaction makes it easy to fall behind, or stagnate when you are ready to move ahead but the rest of the class isn’t.
Finally, there is the time commitment. Class schedules are not flexible and are often difficult to work around. When you use Clozemaster, you can learn a language on your own time and schedule, so you never have to miss a day when something unexpected comes up.
How to Learn a Language Through Immersion
One of the best ways to learn a foreign language is to go to a foreign country. Moving to a country where you don’t speak the language is definitely a daunting task, but can be extremely effective in mastering a new language.
Learning a language abroad is easier than learning in a classroom because of the constant immersion. Instead of hearing it for one hour every day, you hear the language spoken in shops, at restaurants, on the streets, and by your new friends.
Hearing and speaking a language in context makes it much easier to cement vocabulary and word meanings in your memory. For example, discussing shoe types and prices in a shoe store in Spain will help you remember the specific words for boots and sandals much better than just seeing them in a picture or on a flashcard at home.
Foreign language immersion also helps with learning the correct accent and colloquial and cultural terms. When learning Spanish in a classroom, we often study only the most formal or commonly used terms. In practical use, though, there are often completely different phrases that are regularly used and will make point much better. The best way to pick these up is through immersion and discussions with native speakers.
Finally, learning a language through immersion is free. It’s a good way to fine-tune your listening, and exposes you to a variety of accents. However, when learning a language abroad, it’s easy to get stuck. Once you master some simple conversations, like ordering food, asking basic questions, and small talk, it is hard to move beyond them without a challenge. Mastering irregular past tense verbs, for example, will still require study online or in a classroom to improve.
How to Learn a Language Through The Great Translation Game
If you do not have the means (or the courage) to immerse yourself in a foreign language by traveling to a different country, playing The Great Translation Game is a great way to learn in context and practice your writing skills in a stress-free environment.
As the name might suggest, The Great Translation Game will have you translate sentences from the target language into your own language, and then the other way around. You can select from existing texts or upload your own ones, which lets you practice with content that you’re actually interested in – blog posts, news articles, book excerpts, podcasts transcripts, or anything else that catches your eye. As long as you’re using native-level content, you can be sure that the end result of your writing practice is perfectly correct.
The game assists you by providing suggestions of translations into your own language, and giving you instant feedback when you translate them back into the target language. With this kind of help, you can focus on working your way through as many sentences as possible, which will help you improve your writing skills, soak up new vocabulary and perfect your grammar.
How to Learn a Language Through Clozemaster
If you cannot afford class lessons or find the time for a language immersion trip, then Clozemaster is for you. The app and website offer short question rounds which only take about two minutes each to complete. That means they’re perfect to whip out while waiting in lines or killing time before you fall asleep.
If you play just five rounds per day, you’ll see at least 750 new words per month, 2250 in three months, and 4500 in six months. All of that, in only ten minutes a day!
The best part about Clozemaster is that you learn every word in context, so you have a better understanding of how it is used. Other apps or online learning tools just use single card flashcards, which slow down the learning process by forcing you to learn the word first and then how it’s used separately. Learning a word in the context of a sentence is essential in remembering the meaning.
On Clozemaster, you can also use the Grammar Challenges available for a number of languages to learn grammar faster and practice the specific issues you have trouble getting the hang of. Another unique aspect of the app is the cloze-listening available for many of their languages to improve your listening skills faster. We all know listening to our non-native teacher speak slowly in a classroom setting is much different than trying to hold a conversation in a foreign country! Get that culture shock out of the way before you travel by practicing daily with Clozemaster.
How Many Hours Does It Take to Learn a Language?
This article asks “How long does it take to learn a language?” and the exploration of the answer has taught us a lot. If you want to discover how many hours it takes to learn a language, there are many different factors to keep in mind.
First, what level of the language do you need to reach? Elementary for a short vacation abroad, conversational to speak with friends, or professional fluency for foreign work? Each one requires more study and time spent learning the language than the last
Second, which language do you want to learn? The top five most widely spoken languages in the world (outside of English) are Mandarin, Arabic, Hindu, Portuguese, and Spanish. Each of these five is a great language to study, but some are certainly more difficult than others, and take more time and effort to learn. For example, Spanish can be mastered in only 600 hours, while Mandarin takes closer to 2200.
Finally, the amount of time that it takes to learn a language depends on which method of learning you chose. Learning a language through immersion, through structured lessons, and online with Clozemaster all have their differences and pros and cons.
If you chose to learn a language through structured lessons, the minimum amount of time it will take you for the easiest rated languages on the FSI scale is 600 hours over the course of 6 months, and the hardest rated languages will take almost 2 years and 2200 hours to master. If you choose to learn through immersion, you can learn the language faster, especially if you live with a native speaking family. However, it is easy to stagnate in this setting, and you will need to offset your immersion learning with online lessons. If you decide to learn a new language with Clozemaster, you can begin to see progress with only ten minutes a day and can easily learn 750 new words and their context in only one month.
If you are considering taking on the challenge to learn a new language, now is the time to start. Despite opening up a whole new world of communication and new cultures to explore, studies also show that learning a new language has multiple benefits. Becoming bilingual improves memory and perception, and can even lower your chances of both Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Learning a new language takes just ten minutes a day with Clozemaster. Get started today with over 50 different language choices and endless possibilities!