Speed Learning Languages: Is it really possible?
November 15, 2016
The 21st century has brought more than just new technology and globalization. It's also brought with it a more fast-paced and impatient society than ever before, a society that no longer has the time it once had to sit in a language class and study a textbook. Learning a foreign language has become increasingly important in our globalized world, but who really has the time it takes to learn one?
We want to learn a foreign language, and we want to learn it as quickly as possible. 90 days, 30 days, 10 days...
But is it really possible to speed learn a language?
Today, we'll take a look at what it actually means to learn a language and whether or not you can really learn a language in just a few weeks or days.
Can I really learn a language in just 10 days?Most of the "learn a language fast" advertisements seen online promise incredible results like "learn a language in 1 month," "2 weeks" or even just "10 days." They typically don't go into great detail about how they'll actually help learners achieve this, which leaves most wondering, "Is it really possible?"
Yes and no.
First of all, anything is possible with the right method, motivation and dedication. Some language programs will definitely prepare you with practical language elements within the timeframe they promise, but you will definitely not be fluent. You won't be able to talk with anyone about absolutely anything in your foreign language, but you will know some of the basics that can help you survive in a foreign country without being completely lost.
Likewise, 2 months, 2 weeks, or 10 days isn't really indicative of the amount of time and work you need to put in to learn a language. These timelines are merely attention-grabbers that aren't promising you "instant skills," but are rather promising the basics in as short a time as possible. This can be done through the use of learner-friendly teaching methods and by teaching you the most practical vocabulary and grammar first. It will, however, take much more time to be able to fully converse in a language in a variety of different situations.
So how long does it really take to become fluent?
Well, that depends on your definition of "fluent."
Defining Language Learning LevelsBefore asking yourself how long it takes to learn a language, it's important to define what "learn," "speak," and "fluent" mean to you.
Let me give an example.
I have a friend who went to Italy for a few weeks and learned the basics to get around. She can successfully ask for directions, navigate her way through a train station, and order a glass of her favorite wine. According to her, she "speaks Italian," which, of course, she does. But she's far from fluent.
The moment a native Italian starts to speak with her about something that isn't the way to the bathroom, how she's doing, or what she would like to order, she's stuck. She speaks enough to get by, but not enough to fluently communicate. While she may "speak Italian," I probably wouldn't recommend that she puts it on her resume just yet.
So what does it really mean to be fluent in a language?
It's all about the level. According to the European Common Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a guideline used to define language achievements, there are three basic language level groups broken down into two levels each.
While there is no level called "fluency," the description of each level can help to give you an idea of your current ability, goals, and what you really consider to be fluent:
Level A1:In this level, you can:
- Understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases.
- Introduce yourself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where you live, people you know and things you have.
- Interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly.
Level A2:In this level, you can:
- Understand sentences and frequently used expressions related very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment, etc..
- Communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information.
- Describe in simple terms aspects of your background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
Level B1:In this level, you can:
- Understand the main points of communication on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc.
- Deal with most situations likely to arise while travelling in an area where the language is spoken.
- Produce simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest.
- Describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
Level B2:In this level, you can:
- Understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
- Interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
- Produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on an issue with its advantages and disadvantages.
Level C1:In this level, you can:
- Understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning.
- Express your ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
- Use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
- Produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
Level C2:In this level, you can:
- Easily understand virtually everything heard or read.
- Summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
- Express yourself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.
So what's your level?On average, many speakers are considered fluent in a language by the time they've reached a B2 level or higher, a level which allows them to comfortably interact in almost all social situations.
Many speed learning language programs, however, use the ambiguity of terms like "speak a language" to advertize A1 results in a short period of time.
Can you learn some of the basics of a language in 7 days?
Can you be fluent in 7 days?
So if speed language learning isn't all it's cracked up to be, how long does it really take to learn a language?
Language Learning TimelinesLet's take a look at two of the best estimates as to how long it really takes to learn a language.
The first estimate is based on the previously discussed Common European Framework for Reference for Languages.
The CEFR also provides a "Guided Learning Hours" framework to measure the amount of total classroom time needed to reach a B2 (high intermediate) level, the level that is commonly associated with fluency. This framework assumes that for every one hour of classroom time, learners will spend two hours of independent study time. In the end, this equates to a total of between 1,000 and 1,200 hours needed to become fluent in a language.
Let's take a look at what this would mean for some common language learning scenarios:
CEFR Sample Timeline
- One 3-hour course per week for 8 weeks, plus weekly homework assignment (1 hour), independent practice of any type (2 hour). 3 courses per year.
- 120 total hours per year
- You will need between 25-30 courses. At 3 courses per year, it may take you between 8.3-10 years to reach fluency
- One year of language learning in school (4 hours per week + 2 hours of homework + 2 hours of independent practice X 12 weeks X 2 semesters)
- 192 total hours per year
- Between 5-6.25 years to reach fluency
- Dedicated independent study (1 hour per day)
- 365 total hours per year
- Approximately 3 years to achieve fluency
- Total, active immersion (8 hours per day)
- 2920 total hours per year
- Approximately 3 months to reach fluency
That's where the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) language learning study and timeline comes in.
In their study, the Foreign Service Institute examined a group of native English speakers between the ages of 30 and 40 who were studying foreign languages at their school. The students' resulting levels were measured using the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale with the goal being to calculate how long it took students to reach "General professional proficiency" or higher.
According to the FSI, the closer a language is to your native language (in this case, probably English), the faster you will learn that language. They divided their findings into three basic language categories based on the languages' similarity to English, which determined how long it took learners to reach general professional proficiency or higher:
Language Group I
- Languages Closely Related to English
- Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish
- 23-24 Weeks (575-600 Hours)
Language Group II
- Languages similar to English
- 30 weeks (750 hours)
Language Group III
- Languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
- Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili
- 36 Weeks (900 Hours)
Language Group IV
- Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
- Amharic, Bengali, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Pilipino, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Thai, Tamil, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese
- 44 Weeks (1,100 Hours)
Language Group V
- Exceptionally difficult languages for native English speakers
- Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean
- 88 Weeks (2,200 Hours)
It's important to note the conditions of the study, however. The students' schedule called for 25 hours of class per week plus 3 hours of daily independent study, and their classes were generally small, with no more than 6 students. In other words, these were almost ideal language-learning conditions, something that is important to keep in mind, since many of us don't have that kind of time to dedicate to language learning.
This study can be used to help you estimate how many hours it will take you to become fluent in a language and calculate how many weeks--or months, or years--based on how much time you wish to dedicate per week. Keep in mind, however, that the quality of your study is more important than the quantity, and immersion experiences or daily practice can significantly limit how long it takes for you to learn a language.
Check out our Top 10 Spanish hacks for some ideas on improving the effectiveness of your study time!
You Can Do ItWhile it may not be possible to become fluent in a language in just 10 days, it IS possible to learn the basics in a short period of time and move on to becoming fluent within a reasonable time.
Don't be discouraged; you can and will learn a language much faster than you expect. There are even cases (as the internet will surely tell you) of people who learn a language in less than three months.
In the end, YOU decide how quickly you become fluent in a language. With the right attitude, dedication, situation, and motivation, any language is within your reach.
What about you? Do you speak a foreign language or are you learning a foreign language? How long has it taken you to reach your current level?
Feel free to share in the comments section below!
November 15, 2016
Thanks for this informative and encouraging article Jason.
Could we add a time counter to our Rocket WishList? One of the other courses I'm taking for the Mandarin HSK Level 1 exam includes a time counter and event log showing how much time we've put in each day, total accumulated time, and another course allows us to plot them over the months as well. This is a real motivator.
Keep up the great work.
November 16, 2016
Hi David - It is possible to do that, however there is debate as to how accurate any recorded time would be. I will add it to the list for future discussion!
November 16, 2016
The problem is when people leave their screen up while doing other things. These notorious "point banditos" could get false credit.
What I think the other systems do is have an automatic "time-out" some number of seconds after the last keystroke. This could be as short as 10 or 15 seconds without "cheating people" who are unusually thoughtful or slow.
Does one allow credit for listening to the audio instructions? I would suggest yes, as long as they are individually selected. (as opposed to autoplay.)
I can't remember which one of my systems has just added the autoplay on their Iphone download (was it Rocket?) I have accounts and or subscriptions to about a dozen different language courses. I'm writing a book-website on "Adventures in Extreme Learning" (partially to justify to my wife/significant other the fact that I've been spending 8 to 14 hours a day on language learning). In addition to Spanish, German, and Chinese on your Rocket system I've also recently been using the GermanPod101, Chineseclass101, Memrise HSK Level 1 Exam prep, YellowBridge's Chinese Flashcard system, Vocabulix, Duolingo, Yabla, and Fluent U's systems. I had three years of Latin, and dabble lightly and occasionally in Esperato, and Hebrew. I've been on the waiting list for the fantasy beta course in "Klingon" on Memrise.
Sadly, I'm not proficient in any of these languages but really enjoy the learning process.
So even though I find autoplay or internet radio useful to leave on all night while I'm sleeping I wouldn't suggest giving points for it due to the distortion it would cause. But I'm a light sleeper and often phase in and out of sleep through the night. Listening to foreign languages during these light sleep times is an experiment in "Extreme Learning Accelerators."
Given that you already have points we would then be able to create all sorts of fun new measure variables like average points per time unit and points per course, module, lesson, to provide baseline norms like many of the brain health and vitality site do. Also, think of the stats you could generate on your user base! This could be another advantageous competitive feature.
Self-tests, as well as sample tests of these standard and certification courses, could be interesting as well, although could generate copyright issues I guess.
Sorry, I guess I'm going off the deep end, and likely to get you into trouble again. BTW you've probably already noticed that I give no consideration to practicality or relative priority when making suggestions. I figure these are your departments.
Live long and prosper.
November 16, 2016
Jason! This was such a wonderful read! I had been wondering about the general timeline of language fluency, so this definitely cleared some things up for me. If I'm planning to really increase my understanding of Japanese, what sorts of things can I do on a daily basis to ensure that I'm working toward improving?
November 16, 2016
Hi David - It sounds like you have been very busy :) Yes, we recently added the function whereby the system remembers where you were with the audio tracks for desktop, Android and iOS.
Hi Dan - I feel a lot of it comes down to maximizing your learning time. There are a bunch of articles about that under My Tools > Advanced Learning Techniques. Even though it's not Japanese, the article on the Top 10 Spanish Hacks is worth a read as well. In the near future we will put one of those together for Asian languages.
November 17, 2016
I was a little excited to see that some people are considered fluent at B2 (that would be me!). But I definitely want to meet higher goals:). Of course it's easier for someone to minor in Spanish, travel to SA or Spain, or read books in a language other than English if they already know it.
I liked how you mentioned the impatience that is so deeply engraved in our society. Learning a skill (and this includes language-learning) takes TIME. I think too many people expect to be a master at something in the time it would take to get a haircut. I've realized this from being in the dance world for the past 5 years. I've seen individuals waltz in (no pun intended) and expect to be a world champion the next month. But you can't truly achieve that goal in a short amount of time. There are physical limitations (such as injuries). There are mental limitations (not everyone can multitask). There are time limits. It just depends on what your goals are. But it always annoys me when someone is next to me and is acting like a long-time participant when they really need to just give some time and dedication to learning that which I have been working toward for years. But sometimes people would rather have it done quickly rather than have it done right. Think of how many advertisements are out there for the quicky workout. Some things are on a time frame, like getting Christmas presents before Christmas comes. A lot of things are not. One needs to know when to set higher goals, and when to scale back on what is being expected. That's the great part about self-made goals.
Of course, some of us possess more natural dedication than others. I think I'll stick with Language Groups one and two for now. My goal for the next ten years is to know how to speak Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. I found this article to be very informative and helpful. Thank you!
November 21, 2016
Whenever I read an article like this one about the time required to reach fluency in a language, I am reminded of the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In it, Gladwell makes a case that 10,000 hours of practice is required to "master" a subject, whether that be becoming a professional ice hockey player or mastering a musical instrument. I wonder how "fluency" of a new language fits into his thesis.
Actually, I am more curious of the statement above that fluency can be reached through total immersion 8 hours per day for 3 months. Is this accurate? If I spend 90 days in a place in a Spanish-speaking country where I must do all of my communicating in Spanish, or else die of starvation, exposure, lack of beer, or other fatal deficiency, I will be fluent in Spanish? Or at least conversationally comfortable? If so, where do I sign up?
November 22, 2016
A couple of years ago I went to a French languages school, just for a few weeks. There I met several people who, from scratch, had become fluent in French in about three months. Of course you need an intensive course to reach this level. One of the students (Korean) even managed to pick up a beautiful Parisian accent! So yes, it can be done - provided that you can afford to stay in another country for such a long time.
November 22, 2016
The thing that's missing in claims to speed-learn a language is recognition of each learner's innate ability. Some of us are much more able to quickly learn a new language than are others. I'm native English and like to think that I have an excellent command of the language; for me, the study of English was always very easy.
Besides English, I've studied 3 other languages: German in high school, Spanish while living in Mexico, and French mostly through RF. German was very difficult, and I didn't achieve fluency, but on a trip to Germany I managed well as a tourist. Spanish was perhaps the easiest, likely because I constantly used what I'd learned. I wouldn't say I achieved total fluency in Spanish, but after 9 months was pretty good. I've been working on French for 4 years and this past summer managed well as a tourist in France but I'm nowhere near fluent; for me, the language is difficult. Let's just say, that except for my native English, I just don't have an innate ability with languages, and wouldn't learn any of them super-fast.
On a different grain: I've enjoyed studying French and have often been amazed what I've learned about English through my French lessons.
November 23, 2016
I am a native English speaker, my poor old brain is fried and I am about halfway through the Rocket German trilogy. Apparently learning a language when you are older wards off dementia, my experience of German cases suggests that it actually causes it! I visit Germany several times a year to enjoy the country and to practice the language.
Motivation, application and immersion are certainly important but how well and how quickly you learn a language will depend upon how many, many different factors interact. Some of these are down to you and your environment and others to what and how you are trying to learn. Even the goal of fluency is largely a myth because native speakers inevitably use words and phrases in a way you would never even dream of doing and that is without even considering local dialects and slang (where exactly do Germans speak this text book German to each other then?).
If you are an ordinary mortal probably the best that you can hope for from any course is to make yourself understood in a wide range of different situations by conversing grammatically and using reasonably correct pronunciation. Rocket German can get you to that stage in a couple of years or so of fairly hard work, something most other courses won't even come close to achieving. However, I suspect that speaking the language like a native (my definition of fluency) would take decades of study and constant use, if indeed it is actually possible at all for most people.
November 24, 2016
I agree with you, Fred, even after years and years of exposure, many people still don't quite master the language and all of it's nuances. I've known people who have lived in my area of Canada for many years and they still ask for someone to borrow them a book or say they have went to visit their parent-in-laws (English errors intended). To get it all perfect, just plain takes a lot of practice.
As you noted, there are also regional differences in languages: English is a prime example. Not only is there such a thing as British English, but there are also American, Canadian, and Australian, as well as others. This regionalism is also true for French, Spanish, and I'm sure for other languages as well.
November 24, 2016
Fred, I have to disagree with your definition of fluency as speaking a language like a native. I have had the pleasure of knowing quite a few native Spanish speakers in my life, and with one exception, none of them used English as well as some native English speakers do. The one exception is a woman of Venezuelan extraction who has lived in this country many years (maybe born here I'm not sure), and is a retired university Spanish professor. I challenge anyone to hear an accent or misuse of English from her. In my opinion the only people who speak a language like a native are, well, natives to that language.
My goal is to be comfortably conversant in Spanish. Fluent, someday, maybe.
Diana: I would add that there is no such thing as "American" English. We have Yankee English, Southern English, the English spoken along the northern border influenced by Canadians (eh?) New York, Boston, Chicago, and god only knows how many other accents. Even among Southern US English there are variations.
November 25, 2016
Thanks for the comments, some interesting points made.
Fluent is an absolute so any measurements of fluency are contrived anyway but I suppose that anybody encouraging language learning or even selling a language course needs to set expectations and measure success. Like so many things these days it all comes down to marketing a product.
In a society addicted to instant success and gratification a language course based on the more realistic 'Speak pidgin English within a decade through hard work and pain!' is simply not going to cut the ice when compared to one claiming 'Learn seven different languages overnight or your money back!!!' By the time that gullible punters realises that the small print in the latter describes 'learn' as 'make a sound broadly similar to one somewhere in the target language' and 'money back' refers only to the money having been repatriated back to the shareholders offshore bank account it is too late.
Fortunately we have found Rocket Languages. After a couple of years I can get by reasonably well in Germany (possibly excluding cases but even the Germans get those wrong sometimes). I am impressed enough to take advantage of a '60% saving' and try to brush up my very rusty French with Rocket Languages. The language of lurrve doesn't know what indignities are about to be inflicted upon it! (-:
November 25, 2016
My reality has been considerably slower than these estimates.
When I learned French (Scenario 4), it took me over 5 months to become fluent. Living several years in France brought me up to bilingual. That said, I am still a long way off from being perfectly / native bilingual. I think you have to grow up in a bilingual home to be that.
I am learning Spanish (Scenario 3) and I am sort of fluent (B2ish, probably still on the low end). I really don’t want to go back and look when I actually started but it’s been over 6 years. Of course, I’m getting old now and I probably could have gone about it better.
November 27, 2016
I love this article! It really sums things up for me!
Based on the descriptions for each level, I would gauge my Spanish to be a B2. Basically better then average, but I still have a lot more work to do. Meanwhile, my Japanese was an A2 before taking Rocket, but after a couple of months of Rocket Japanese, it went up to a B1.
With that listing of how easy or difficult it is to learn a language for a Native English speaker, I have to agree and disagree at the same time, as a lot of this is subjective.
Spanish is IMO one of the easier languages for an English speaker to learn because of the demographic. I haven't studied Spanish in over 20 years, yet I can hold conversations in it better then I can my Japanese, for the simple fact that I have multiple opportunities to use my Spanish. Very rarely do I get a chance to say "konnichiwa！o genki desu ka?”, But at least three times a day I get to say "Hola! Como estas?" at my job.
French is similar not because of the similarity in langauge, but because America has a lot of people from African countries, Haiti, or live close to the Canadian Border (or are originally from Canada). For someone learning French, this advantage exists as well.
As one who is studying one of the languages in the "difficult" section (Japanese), I'll throw my two cents in. Part of the problem of learning the language is having opportunities for immersion compared to Spanish or French. Another issue is that these languages tend to have symbols that can mean completely different things depending on what else is used in front or behind it, or even one subtle difference.
大-dai (means big)
太-tai (means fat)
犬-inu (means dog)
That little slash mark determines what the word means. But that's not all!
That looks like a tree, and that is actually what the symbol means! But here is the trickiness.
If I use this by itself, the tree kanji is "ki". But what if I combine this symbol with another kanji? Now instead of "ki", we have to say "moku". There is more to the craziness though...
If someone asks you to write the kanji that means "ki", which one do we write? Sure we can write 木 (tree), but ki can also be 黄 (yellow), or even 気 (spirit). This is the part where a lot of learners of Japanese (and I would assume Chinese as well) jump off the train and go like "No thanks! I'm done! No more!" Meanwhile, Spanish is nowhere near frustrating in terms of sentence structure and vocabulary. If I want to say dog, its "perro", no questions asked. Yellow will be "amarillo" whether its at the front of the sentence, in the middle, or at the end. And if I want to say big or fat, then its "grande" and "gordo". No confusion to be found compared to Japanese.
To basically summarize it up, how fast you can learn a language depends on not just your conviction, but also what tools you have around you. Japanese really doesn't faze me too much because I play a lot of video games and read/watch media that is of Japanese origin. If I had more access to Native Japanese speakers for immersion, then I would master the language. But if I didn't play a lot of games and watch anime/read manga, then Japanese would be a lot more difficult to learn, because IMO, people learn better when they are enjoying themselves. If something becomes a chore, then the desire for it drops.