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Last Updated on September 28, 2022

How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language? Science Will Tell You

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How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language? Science Will Tell You

How long does it take to learn a language? This is a common question for those interested in picking up a second language. It’s easier to start when you know how long it might take.

Obviously, learning a language is difficult. It could take months and even years of dedicated study. And that’s to achieve a conversational level, or working proficiency. In case you want to be fluent, then complete immersion in the native country is what you will need!

Let’s get started by looking at what science has to say on the subject.

What Happens to Your Brain When You Learn a New Language?

In a recent study conducted by Swedish scientists, it was found that learning a foreign language could increase the size of your brain[1]. They reached this conclusion after scanning the brains of people who learned a second language.

The participants were classified into two categories: young military recruits with a flair for varied languages and a control group of medical science students who studied a lot, but not specifically languages.

They found that brain structures of the control group remained unchanged, while the brains of the language students showed significant signs of development in terms of size[2].

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Benefits of learning a second language

    Fast Language Learners

    A new paper published in the journal Cognition used a Facebook-quiz-powered method to understand how humans learn a language, and what impact age has on this process[3].

    The study found that you are more likely to obtain native-like fluency if you start learning before the age of 18 than if you start leaning later. However, this doesn’t mean that adults can’t attain fluency just because they started late.

    The study found that thousands of adults who started learning after they were at least 20 years old were able to attain a native-level fluency.

    Another recent study analyzed the correlation between bilingualism and learning a third language[4]. It found that students who already knew two languages were easily able to gain command over the third language when compared to people who are fluent in only one language.

    The good news is that you don’t need to have a special sort of brain when taking on a new language. In this TED Talk, Lydia Machova explains how you can get started:

    How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language?

    Undoubtedly, there are various factors that impact how long it will take, especially if you’re looking to reach a level of near-native fluency.

    There are more than 6,000 languages, and they all range from easy to difficult. Spanish, for example, is easy to pick up for English speakers, while others like Arabic and Mandarin, which make use of different alphabets and symbols could be really tough to master.

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    Learn more about the difficulty of learning different languages here: 7 Hardest Languages to Learn For English Speakers

    Another important factor that impacts the time it will take you to learn a language is how you choose to learn it. Are you going to join language classes? Do you intend to use an app or an online program? Do you plan to travel to the concerned country for a more immersive experience?

    Answers to all these questions will help you in gauging how much time it will take you to master the language.

    The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) believes that determining the difficulty of a language is essential when calculating the time it will take to learn it. Here are the categories they have created[5]:

    Category I

    This includes languages closely related to English, like Swedish, Afrikaans, Dutch, French, Norwegian, Romanian, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and the like. Mastering these languages will take around 575 to 600 hours or 23 to 24 weeks.

    Category II

    This includes the languages that are somewhat similar to English, like German, and it’s estimated that it will take 30 weeks or 750 hours of study to attain the desired fluency.

    Category III

    This talks about languages which are different linguistically when compared to English. Such languages include Swahili, Indonesian, and Malaysian. They will take you 36 weeks or 900 hours to master.

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    Category IV

    This category includes languages like Hindi, Thai, Hungarian, Latvian, Bulgarian, Bengali, Nepali, and others. Essentially, these languages have significant linguistic differences and take around 44 weeks or 1100 hours to attain mastery.

    Category V

    This includes languages that are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers. These include Korean, Japanese, Arabic, Mandarin, and Chinese. They take around 88 weeks or 2,200 hours.

    Keep in mind that these categories are just one way of looking at language learning, and there are so many factors that go into it that many people disagree with this categorization. However, this is a good place to start.

    How to Speed up Language Learning

    While it won’t be the same for everyone, there are some tips to help you speed up the process as you learn the language[6].

    1. Use Short, Frequent Study Sessions

    This will ensure that the words, phrases, and grammar stay fresh in your mind and that you come back to reinforce recently learned information without letting too much time pass. Instead of studying for 3 hours a day, do 3 or 4 study sessions of 30 minutes each.

    2. Speak as Much as Possible

    The reason that language immersion is so successful is that it forces you to learn to speak the language. If you can, find a tutor who is a native-speaker of the target language and set up weekly speaking sessions. If you can travel to a country where they speak that language, even better!

    3. Make It Relevant

    As humans, we remember more of what matters to us. Therefore, if you decide to learn a language, make sure you have a real reason for doing so. Maybe you want to travel to a country where they speak that language, or your partner’s family speaks it and you want to communicate with them better.

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    Find ways to incorporate it into your daily life. For example, you can try to read books or watch movies in that language. This will help you connect more deeply with the language.

    Final Thoughts

    As you can see, answering the question “How long does it take to learn a language?” isn’t very straightforward. However, the sooner you get started, the sooner you’ll master the language.

    Learning a new language has been associated with various benefits – it can improve memory and perception and lower your chances of suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.

    You can find more benefits of learning a new language in this article: 12 Surprising Benefits of Learning a New Language

    More on How to Learn a New Language

    Featured photo credit: David Iskander via unsplash.com

    Reference

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