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April 2018

How Long It Takes to Learn a New Language

Can you really become fluent in months?

Learning a new language may take longer than some app companies are claiming, according to a recent article published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. We’ve all heard the astounding figures of learning languages in several months, whether from ambitious language learning app companies or from linguist bloggers. But is this the actual truth? Maybe. As the article suggests, it really depends on how you define “learn a language”.

Similarly, “fluent” can be more relative than we think. The term doesn’t mean complete mastery of a language, rather it infers the ability to use a language easily and with minimal effort. This implies communication without struggle, however it doesn’t mean a “fluent” speaker is a profound orator.

Tourists have it easy

The level of language proficiency required by a tourist visiting a foreign country is relatively low. Simple phrases regarding food orders or quests for toilets usually suffice. Many websites boast how their readers and app users can have a conversation in their target language in as little as a few months. This sounds great, but rarely do they specify the topic or the level of said conversation. A dialogue with a hostel clerk about which chocolates taste the best can technically be regarded as a meaningful conversation for some.

Those who need to learn a new language for work or to live in a new country undoubtedly require more proficiency than a tourist who is only passing through for a week. The breadth of vocabulary required for a new resident or worker must go beyond food and train station directions. For these individuals, it often takes much longer to develop the skills to converse “fluently” on their choice topics.

It ain’t nothing but an age thing

As diverse as humans are, we also all learn at different paces. A young student using a language app might have an easier time picking up a new language than, say, an older person. A recent article in Business Insider looked at “when it gets more difficult to learn a new language, according to science”. As we get older, we tend to have more trouble learning new languages, especially when it comes to distinguishing sounds. The decline, they say, begins in our 20s and 30s.

Natural skill also accounts for much when determining the learning speed of an individual learner. Some of us have more trouble picking up new languages than a linguist blogger, so it might be ultimately demoralising to assume we all could learn just as quickly.

Where you come from matters

Your native tongue also has much to say about your ability to learn a new language. Some people have more trouble learning certain languages than others. For example, French may be easier for Spanish speakers because both languages are romance languages, while Mandarin speakers might have increased difficulty with French because the alphabet, grammar, and tones are all new to them.

The aforementioned article by the ABC also rightly mentions the availability of resources as a determining factor. While Mandarin may not be the easiest language for Australians to learn, the country’s close proximity to China may provide them with more and better schooling that can make learning a quicker endeavor.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t be swayed too much by claims of how quickly an app or website can help us learn a language. It all comes down to lots of hard work and patience. Focusing on how long it takes us can have the negative side effect of dropping our confidence should we find ourselves passing our milestones with less-than-expected to show for. What matters is making sure we enjoy the journey of learning a new language, and “fluency” and mastery will arrive inevitably.

What is your experience with language learning milestones and learning speed? Share your advice with other language learners on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles!

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