How long to learn a language?

Katia   Friday, January 07, 2005, 01:29 GMT
I'm just curious, for those of you that have already learnt a second language relatively fluently, how long did it take you? I know some people who it takes five to ten years for as well as a rare few who only took about six months before they were able to speak with near-fluency. I realize it can also have to do with HOW one learns a language... Such as, people who move to a country generally learn the language a lot more quickly than people studying a second language from their own country. I have a Russian friend who, within a year of living in America, had a larger vocabulary than most Americans! When she came here, she did not know an ounce of English.
Mxsmanic   Friday, January 07, 2005, 21:48 GMT
Learning a language similar to your own (e.g., learning a European language when your own language is European) usually requires about two years of significant study (hours per week) when starting from zero. It's possible to achieve results in a much shorter period with intensive courses; occasional study, in contrast, may take years to show any results.

Double this period for languages very different from your own (such as Mandarin for a Basque speaker, etc.).

Motivation is the most important factor determining the speed of progress and the level achieved. Intelligence is also an important factor. There appears to be some degree of specific natural aptitude involve in some cases, also.

It's difficult for me to quantify my study of French because it was spread out over such a long period in calendar time, but I'd say a few hundred hours to achieve a good level of fluency.
Brennus   Saturday, January 08, 2005, 06:02 GMT

Languages are hard. It takes about 15 years to really learn a language. However, you are not alone. It even takes native speakers of a language about the same length of time to speak it proficiently ; the first 15 years of their lives are spent expanding their vocabulary and learning all the proper grammar rules of the language.

There is something called a "working knowldege" in languages which can be learned in a far shorter period of time. To have a working knowledge of the language you only need to know about 2,000 words. Thus, if you memorized ten words in a language per day, you could essentially acquire a working knowledge of it in 200 days. However, having a working knowledge, while better than nothing at all, is still a long shot from being able to converse fluently in the language.

Many immigrants to the United States and Canada seem to acquire English quickly but this is deceptive. What many of them after a few years is a street English or barter English but it is not a cognative, academic English necessary to succed in college or to get a good job.
Brennus   Saturday, January 08, 2005, 07:01 GMT
What many of them after a few years is - Should read -What many of them HAVE after a few years is...
Steve K   Saturday, January 08, 2005, 16:41 GMT
How long does it take to learn a language?

This is from my blog.

"People always ask me how quickly they can "learn" a second language, like English for example. I always answer that it depends on your level, and whether the language you are learning shares a lot of vocabulary with a language you already know (Italian-Spanish-even English; Korean-Japanese-Chinese etc.). Most of all it depends on how much effort you put in.

Along with motivation, intensity is one of the most important principles of language learning. If you spend at least 90 minutes per day for six days out of seven every week, you will make a significant breakthrough in three months. If you study 3 hours a week you will achieve very little.

A breakthrough might mean getting to basic conversation ability starting from zero. It might mean going from basic conversation to the ability to express more complex thoughts and read comfortably. You will know when you have made a breakthrough and it feels good.

Of course your activity must be intense. Sitting in language class may not be intense, especially if there 15 other students in the class. Personal study is intense. I am talking about reading, listening, learning words and phrases and using them in writing and speaking. You can do that with a minimum amount of tutoring.

Language learning is an ongoing process. You are always less than perfect but you should be constantly improving if you do it right. It is a long road of gradually getting more and more comfortable in the language. It should always be enjoyable but it does require deliberate effort. "

I have seen too many people apply themselves to learning a language, including Westerners learning Japanese and Chinese, and succeed within a much shorter time frame than suggested by Brennus. Forget perfection, sorry Tom! Enjoy yourself. The grammar, the correct turn of phrase, the ability to say what you want, it will all come in due course if you enjoy learning and using the language.

Quick answer: Related language 500 hours, unrelated language 1000 hours.
Sanja   Saturday, January 08, 2005, 18:00 GMT
I've been learning English since I was 10 and I'm still learning it (I'm 25 now). I think it never ends. LOL :)
american nic   Sunday, January 09, 2005, 23:38 GMT
Steve K - your blog is incorrect in saying that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are as close as English, Spanish, and Italian. In Chinese itself, the different 'dialects' are at least as far apart as the second set of languages, Korean is even more different, and Japanese is not related at all to the other two (it's much closer to Finnish and Hungarian, actually).

I have found, in learning German and Spanish that even though German is technically closer to English, Spanish is much easier to learn. For example, I can easily read and understand Spanish (though I can't understand some simple words like some of the prepositions, most technical words are very similar to English) but German is probably ten times harder (I can easily read and understand basic words, which are related to English, but technical words are almost always different). It's kind of strange.
Steve K   Monday, January 10, 2005, 04:53 GMT
My point was that there was a lot of common vocabulary, which I consider to be the most important point. I did not say that they were as close as anything.

Japanese and Korean are in fact close, structurally. Both are heavily ifluenced by Tungusic languages and share Chinese origin words in their Kanji/Hanja. The connection to Finnish or Hungarian of either language is much more remote.

Yes Spanish is easier than German because from the point of view of a lot of abstract and scientific or technical vocabulary English might as well be a Latin language..which was my point in my blog.
Brennus   Monday, January 10, 2005, 06:03 GMT
Japanese and Korean are indeed part of a larger Uralic family which includes Finnish, Estonian, Samoyed, Chermiss and Hungarian. Steve is right about the numerous foreign borrowings , however, Korean still sounds something like a Uralic language reminiscent of Finnish when I've heard Korean students conversing in it with all those words ending in -nida and -nikka. Some similar analogies might be Yiddish, Hungarian and Romanian which still sound Germanic, Uralic and Romance respectively despite numerous Slavic loan words.
Easterner   Monday, January 10, 2005, 08:06 GMT
<<Some similar analogies might be Yiddish, Hungarian and Romanian which still sound Germanic, Uralic and Romance respectively despite numerous Slavic loan words.>>

Hungarian also has quite a large number of Central Asian Turkic and Iranian loanwords, although indeed a lot of Slavic ones as well. I agree about the rest. By the way, I have also heard something of Hungarian and Japanese being remotely related, but I think Korean and Japanese are closer to the Altaic branch, especially Mongolian and Manchu-Tungusic (I am not sure if I used the correct term for the latter). Moreover, Japanese is a blend of an Altaic and an Indonesian language, to my best knowledge (it was definitely influenced by an Indonesian ethnic group).

To throw in my two cents with the original topic: in my experience you can get a working knowledge of most languages (including the ones entirely different from your own) over a span of one to two years. However, an in-depth familiarity and fluency may take as much as ten years or more, depending on the language and the method. I started to get really fluent in English after about 6 years of study, while in German and French after about 4-3 years (excluding the gaps when I did not learn intensively). however, I would not say I was studying intensively, and there were also breaks, especially with French. All in all, with regular study and a lot of input, you can achieve quite a high degree of fluency in about 4-5 years.
Brennus   Monday, January 10, 2005, 08:48 GMT

No biggy but re:>> Moreover, Japanese is a blend of an Altaic and an Indonesian language, to my best knowledge (it was definitely influenced by an Indonesian ethnic group)>>.

You may right. Some sources I've read indicate that Ainu and Malayo-Polynesian speakers preceded Uralic (Ural-Altaic?) speakers in Japan in much the same way that Pictish (i.e. Basque?) and Celtic speakers preceded the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. (History repeats itself).

Furthermore, people on islands in general usually are mixtures. Hawaii, for instance, eventually acquired Portuguese and Puerto Rican immigrants in addition to Anglo-American, Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
james   Monday, January 10, 2005, 10:08 GMT
i am not an expert in the langauge scene, but when you say Japanese and Finnish etc are related, in what way do you mean? Do they share vocabulary, similar sentance structure or what? Would a Japanese person actually find it easier to learn that language than others?
Encke   Monday, January 10, 2005, 10:56 GMT
Well that's a very intersting question, i am native from Germany and i speak fluent italian, it was easy because of my germans origins in 3 weeks i was fluent but very difficult for english.
Easterner   Monday, January 10, 2005, 17:20 GMT
As I see it, the time needed to be good at a language also depends on which usage you want to be good at. Everyday usage may seem easy to learn, but without actually living in a target country it is well-nigh impossible to sound really native-like in casual speech (I mean idiomatic language used by natives). It is a little different with educated vocabulary, most non-natives encounter that style for the first time, and if you learn intensively enough, you can acquire educated usage in about two or three years, maybe even less. For example, for me it seems easier to write an article in Italian than use colloquial idiom while hanging around with Italian natives, or write a letter in colloquial style. And after years of study I still have trouble understanding colloquial French. That may take years to learn if you do not have a chance to live in the target country. I wonder how it is with others.
nada que hacer   Tuesday, January 11, 2005, 19:18 GMT
1 year - 6 months - 2 weeks - 3 days - 6 hours - 34 minutes - 21 seconds.