Since I first wrote this article, I have changed my thinking. I used to say: Think of it as a long term project. Like starting a blog or a YouTube channel, it can take several years. But now I believe the target is more achievable. Read on to find out more
How long does it take to learn a foreign language?
The phrase that springs to mind is: ‘How long is a piece of string?’.
There is no definite answer. There are many factors at play and many questions to consider.
What level do you want to achieve? How much time do you have available to learn the language? What is your main reason for learning the language? Have you learned any other languages already, apart from your native language? What is your general level of education? How well organised are you? How self-motivated are you? Will you have many opportunities to practice the language?
Thinking about these questions will help to make the situation clearer. It’s pretty clear that if your answers are generally positive and upbeat, you will have a better chance of succeeding.
But let’s address the question of how long it takes to learn a language directly, by looking at some examples.
School students who learn a foreign language as a subject often have five hours of tuition per week, plus homework set by the teacher.
To progress from beginner level to A2 or pre-intermediate level – GCSE level (taken in the UK at age 16) can take two or three years.
For ‘A’ level in England & Wales, Highers in Scotland or the Leaving Certificate in Ireland, a further two years are generally needed.
Some students will decide to continue their journey by studying languages at university, as I did
So to reach intermediate level in a foreign language can take, to be honest, a few years.
Is there a faster way to learn a language?
Let’s take another example.
In the Second World War, military personnel were trained in a foreign language in preparation for undercover deployment behind enemy lines. The aim was to bring them up to a very high level of competency in a short time.
They were immersed in the language every day for many hours, receiving intensive instruction and practice.
After three months, using this method, many trainees were able to reach a remarkably high level. A few might have been able to pass themselves off as native speakers.
But this ‘immersion’ method is not really possible for most people today, who are in full-time employment, many with families to take care of and other commitments. The only possibility for intensive study might be a short immersion course of one week or so. But that is not enough to make sustained rapid progress.
Now let’s take the example of my private students and evening class students. Many of them start to learn German as adults. They may or may not have learned some German at school. Some of them have already tried learning another language, many have not.
After a few months, they are able to form basic sentences, but it can be frustrating for them. They wish they had more words and phrases at their disposal but most feel motivated to continue.
After a year, they are able to function at a basic level. They can handle simple situations in the country and can talk about themselves.
Slowly, over time, they start to make progress.
They make the transition towards intermediate level. Now they can begin to cope with selected material aimed at a native speaker audience.
Now all those hours spent learning and practising are starting to pay off, they can function well, understand a lot and can express themselves reasonably well, still with grammatical mistakes but that’s normal.
How long did it take to achieve this level? It can take a few years, but it’s possible to reach intermediate level sooner Maybe a year or two.
I compare it to starting a blog or building a YouTube channel. It’s not an overnight thing. To achieve a good, functional level, it takes time. You need to be patient and determined but eventually, you will reach that level and start to enjoy the benefits of knowing another language.
That level is Intermediate Level. Intermediate level is your primary goal, and it may not take so long to get there, maybe only a year or two. More about the joys of reaching Intermediate Level this in another article (in planning)
I offer individual and group courses in German, more information here.