How Long Does It Take To Learn A Language?
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The question of how long it takes to learn a language is not asked as
frequently as the question, Can I really learn to speak a language?
Some people would be very glad if they could say even a few phrases
in a foreign language with a passable accent. Still others mainly want
to read great works of literature. Still others may aspire to speak and
write another language as fluently as their mother tongue.
Before travel abroad became common, foreign languages were associated
in this country with educated people and immigrants. The former were
often interested only in reading and writing a particular language,
while the latter could speak their native language, but had little
occasion to read or write it after coming to the United States. Some
educated people resembled the upper class British gentlemen of the
nineteenth century, who typically "knew" French, but were disinclined
to imitate the "peculiar" sounds a Frenchman makes when speaking.
In today's world, many people who study a foreign language chiefly
desire to speak it. It is important, therefore, to estimate how well
person can expect to speak a language after studying it for a certain
number of hours -- and conversely, how many hours it may take him to
reach the fluency he has in mind. Several estimates follow on how
it takes to achieve various sorts of mastery, based on FSI data, and
The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) Rating Scale
Most U.S. government agencies use the FSI Absolute Language
Proficiency Ratings to measure a prospective employee's ability to
a foreign language in his work. Once employed, he periodically
undergoes the same type of rating as a basis for promotion. The
to be rated is interviewed by one or more trained testers, who are
always native speakers. They converse with him for ten to twenty
minutes, probing his command of pronunciation, grammar, and
vocabulary. Then they pool their judgments to assign him a rating.
lowest rating is 1, the highest 5, and any rating can be modified by
plus or minus.
Each rating designates a particular degree of mastery of the language
for business and social purposes:
1. Elementary proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine
travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
2. Limited working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine
social demands and limited work requirements.
3. Minimum professional proficiency. The person can speak the
with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate
effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical,
social, and professional topics.
4. Full professional proficiency. The person uses the language
fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to
professional needs. 5. Native or bilingual proficiency. The person
speaking proficiency equivalent to that of an educated native
How long, one wonders, does it take a person to achieve the minimum
and how much longer after that to reach a 2 or a 3?
FSI researchers studied the performance of all their students during
three-year period, noting the ratings they received after various
periods of training. Table 1 shows the results for the "easy"
languages and for the "hard" languages. Incidentally, the definition
of "easy" and "hard" were arrived at by including only Group 1
languages -- for the most part the "Romance" languages --under the
"easy" languages, while "hard" languages included Groups 2,3, and
4.languages -- all other languages -- as listed in the second part of
the Table below. Whether this is the most valid, or even useful
definition of easy and hard to learn languages, depends to a large
degree upon whether one feels that language
instruction, regardless of learner or teacher preference, must start
with each individual learner gradually acquiring an increasing
of the spoken language, before adding written skills, or with the
current standard academic approach to avoid language as a spoken
at first, and work with an eclectic, mixed approach using a written
grammar- translation and oral-drill combination, perhaps with a
language laboratory, or combinations of film, CD-ROM and/or other
equipment. There are advocates on both sides.
Ratings of FSI students speaking a Group 1 language after specified
Periods of training.
8 weeks (240 hours) 1/1+
16 weeks (480 hours) 2
24 weeks (720 hours) 2+
Ratings of FSI students speaking a Group 2-4 language after specified
Periods of training.
12 weeks (360 hours) 1/1+
24 weeks (720 hours) 1+ /2
44 weeks (1320 hours) 2/2+ /3
Which Are the "Easy" and "Hard" Languages?
In reality, these time estimates are a little lower than they at
appear; holidays and other lost time reduce them by about 10 percent.
Nevertheless, the meaning is clear. If you are a language learner of
average ability, and you undertake an "easy" language, it will
probably take you about 240 hours to get to the first level of
in speaking it, and double that to get to Level 2. If you are slower
than average at learning languages, allow 50 percent more time, if
faster, 50 percent less.
These figures are based on a particular type of instruction: the FSI
intensive course where one studies a language for six hours a day,
five days a week, in a class of no more than 10 students, led by an
experienced linguist and a well-trained native drillmaster. The
language-learning paradise, the students are highly motivated, and
optimum results are achieved. Yet these estimates are reasonably
for people who, like most of us, have no choice but to attend a
conventional course that meets forty-five minutes a day or a couple
evenings a week.
Human attention is limited. No one can absorb knowledge steadily for
six hours a day, week after week; some of the time in intensive
courses is necessarily "wasted" in relaxing, clearing one's mind, or
daydreaming. Moreover, things that seem confusing one day sometimes
clear up by the next, after they have settled into place in one's
This "incubation" factor favors a non-intensive learning schedule. In
short, it is not certain that people who spread their language
learning over a longer period necessarily require more total hours
than those who concentrate. They may even require fewer.
The overriding message is that anyone can learn a foreign language,
but some people are quicker at it than others. Still, language
learning is a serious commitment, and if one's aim is to speak it
comfortably (say, 2+ on the FSI scale), this is likely to take the
equivalent of six months of full-time study.
If your objective is to master the language fully in speech and
writing, then you may have to devote at least a year and a half, most
of it spent in the foreign country, to reach this objective. A good
plan would be to study the language for three to six months at home,
and then go to the foreign country for at least a year, during which
time you must speak only the foreign language. At the end of this
time, you would understand most people and even television and
read almost any written matter without a dictionary, and perhaps
with a modicum of style. Adults who go abroad to live find that after
several months of getting adjusted to speaking and understanding in
everyday situations, they can then begin to penetrate the language
participate in the life of the country.
Some people are dismayed by time estimates that run to hundreds of
hours. They feel that this is more time than they are willing to
commit. They should reflect on the fact that one year from today they
will be one year older whether they undertake this learning task or
not. The only question is, whether on that day, they are going to be
well along toward mastering the language they have dreamed of
or whether it will still be only a dream.
The Pimsleur Language Teaching Methodology
As noted earlier these FSI learning rates and achievement levels for
easy and hard languages are based on learners being trained with a
particular FSI Intensive Language Training Program. It is revealing
compare these results with results based on learners using the
Pimsleur Self-instructional Language Comprehensive Programs, which
consist of three coordinated levels containing 30 audio lessons in
each level. Under the Pimsleur Methodology, learners accomplish one
30-minute lesson each and every day.
The Pimsleur method of language training is based upon the assumption
that every natural language contains within itself all of the keys to
unlock the code of that language. Therefore Pimsleur introduces the
learner to any new language by exposing him to spoken language in use
i.e. in actual communication. This practice permits the learner to
actually "hear" precisely what he needs to hear in order to identify
and to understand who is doing what to whom, when, why, and how! In
this type of training the learner gains the most powerful aspect of
language, which is to be able to hear statements, to understand the
situation, and eventually to respond with his own choices.
In short, he will be using all of the meaning-carrying elements human
languages have developed over generations to become the incredible
tool it has become! What more does a learner of a language need in
order to behave as a normal human being and engage in spoken
communication with his language community? Teaching him the rules of
grammar in English is not an asset he can afford to waste his time on
at this stage of his language learning!
All of this essential learning can happen -- and be acquired as
language-in-use only if the learner is allowed to concentrate on
"exposed" directly to the target language while it is
This means the adult learner can "do his own thing" and having
previously developed his linguistic skills, will acquire gradual
control of this new language as he did his mother tongue. It will be
as natural as talking! And we have made no mention here of the part
that learning to re-apply and re-use the same sort of previously
acquired linguistic skills will mean to learners. It will also mean
they will learn faster and easier and their success will give them
confidence and assurance they need to stay the course of learning!
The important principle in the development of adult spoken-language
communication skills training is that learners progress from a
compound linguistic system, in which the items of the second language
are added to the native language to form a coordinate system. In this
coordinate system the two languages can function independently, as
appears to be the case with pure bilinguals.
Concerning language acquisition itself, with the exception of those
with severe pathologies, everyone who has acquired his native tongue,
can, under appropriate conditions, learn to understand, to speak and
communicate effectively in additional languages.
A second language will be acquired by a normal human being if and
if particular, whole instances of the language are modeled for him
if his own particular acts of using the language are selectively
reinforced. The critical point is that unless a learner has learned
language-in-use, he has not learned them as language, and that if he
has learned enough such instances, he will be able to understand and
to effectively communicate in the foreign language.
In second language learning, instructional procedures have a
considerable effect in determining the way in which the two languages
psychologically. The objective of spoken proficiency levels --
effective communication -- depends upon the instructional methodology
of the teaching/learning Program.
In the space of each Pimsleur lesson of approximately 30 intensive
minutes a day, the adult learner will experience real-language use.
he does this, each individual learner builds his own tapestry of
language, whether it be in one, or several additional languages,
the first one. Pimsleur learners know they have the power to use
languages in real life! Pimsleur learner's who follow the schedule of
Pimsleur training, will test out as follows, on the ACTFL as well as
the FSI Proficiency Scales. The ACTFL (The American Council on the
Teaching of Foreign Languages) has developed their own official
Proficiency Scale as a statement of the general aims and goals for
foreign language teaching profession. ACTFL and the FSI have
equivalencies between the two Scales.
Level I Pimsleur Instruction 30-lessons, after only 15 cumulative
hours, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediate-low spoken proficiency,
(a FSI -1 rating), able to survive and cope in country; able to ask
and answer questions dealing with everyday situations, and as well
earn respect and cooperation for your fluency, your pronunciation,
Level II Pimsleur Instruction 30 more lessons, after the second 15
cumulative hours, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediate-mid spoken
proficiency, (a FSI -1 rating), able to exchange information about
yourself, your family, or associates, and avoid basic cultural
Level III Pimsleur Instruction 30 more Lessons, after the final 15
hours of the Comprehensive Program -- for a total of 45 hours of
training, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediate-high proficiency, (a
FSI -1+ rating), able to participate in casual conversations and
conduct everyday transactions with success and pleasure in your