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How long does it take to learn English? I’m sure every single person listening has thought about this question before. Today, let’s look at why we want to learn quickly, what it means to have “learned English”, the official estimates for length of time to learn English, and some factors that can affect the length of time you will spend studying!

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  • Intensive (adj) – Involving or requiring great effort, focus, or concentration.
    • She enrolled in an intensive English course to improve her language skills quickly.
  • Proficiency (n) – Competence or skill in a particular field or area.
    • After years of practice, he reached a high level of proficiency in playing the piano.
  • Language acquisition (n) – The process of learning and gaining fluency in a language.
    • Children have a remarkable ability for language acquisition, effortlessly learning multiple languages at a young age.
  • Frameworks (n) – Structures or systems that provide a basis for understanding or organizing something.
    • The framework for this research project includes various theoretical models and methodologies.
  • Guidelines (n) – Recommendations or instructions that provide direction or advice.
    • The company provided clear guidelines on how to complete the task effectively.
  • Immersion (n) – Deep involvement or engagement in a particular activity or environment.
    • Living in a foreign country for a year allowed her to experience full immersion in the local culture and language.
  • Aptitude (n) – Natural ability or talent for a specific skill or subject.
    • She demonstrated an aptitude for languages and easily picked up new vocabulary and grammar.

The Fascination with Fast Language Learning

Learning a language is exciting, rewarding, and can open new opportunities, so it’s no surprise that many of you want to learn English as quickly as possible.

Last month I released an episode on the 10,000-hour rule (the idea it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at a skill), and in response I had so many comments and messages talking about how long some of you have been learning English. I think responses varied from a few months to 40 or 50 years.

And if you look online or on social media, you will see many resources marketed with the idea of learning English quickly. I found hundreds of articles online titled “Learn English in 30 Days” or something similar. Now most of these are lying to you – they just want to sell you a book or a course or classes.

But it demonstrates just how obsessed we are today with learning languages quickly. Why is this?


Why Do We Want to Learn English Quickly?

In today’s fast-paced world, instant gratification has become the norm. We’re used to accessing information instantly and achieving goals with minimal effort. Naturally, this mindset spills over into language learning. Many of us hope to see rapid progress and become proficient speakers in a short amount of time.

Societal factors also contribute to the desire for quick language acquisition. The increased interconnectedness of the world through globalization and travel has sparked a growing interest in learning languages. People want to communicate with others from different cultures, expand their career opportunities, or simply navigate a new country with ease. Consequently, the pressure to learn a language quickly intensifies.

Despite the fascination with fast language learning, it is important to address some misconceptions that can lead to unrealistic expectations. Learning a language is a complex process that requires time, effort, and consistent practice. Unfortunately, promises of “learn a language in 10 days” or “master a language in a month” can mislead language learners and set you up for disappointment.

Language learning is a gradual journey, and progress varies from person to person. Each language has its own unique features, including vocabulary, grammar, and cultural nuances. These factors influence the time it takes to achieve fluency. Understanding and accepting this reality is crucial for maintaining motivation and avoiding frustration.

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Language Learning and Fluency

To understand how long it takes to learn a language, it is essential to explore what it means to have “learned” a language. Language learning is a dynamic process with various levels of proficiency. Even in your native language, you are still learning and improving every single day. When a textbook is titled, “learn English in 30 days”, what does “learning English” actually mean?

Language proficiency encompasses the ability to effectively communicate and comprehend in a particular language. It involves acquiring skills in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Proficiency allows individuals to engage in conversations, express thoughts and emotions, understand written and spoken texts, and navigate various cultural contexts.

Attaining proficiency in a language implies having a solid grasp of its grammar, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and cultural nuances. It means being able to convey ideas accurately and fluently, adapting language use to different situations, and understanding the subtleties of the language.

One aspect often associated with language proficiency is fluency. Fluency refers to the ability to communicate effortlessly and smoothly in a language. It involves speaking with ease, using appropriate intonation and rhythm, and expressing oneself without constant pauses or hesitations. Fluent speakers can understand and respond to others in real-time, enabling effective and natural communication.


However, it is important to note that fluency can vary across different language domains and contexts. Fluency in informal conversations might differ from fluency in professional or academic settings. Language learners should aim for a balance between accuracy and fluency, adapting their language use to the specific communication goals and context.

For some people, becoming proficient in English may be the ability to participate in daily conversations. For others, it could be reading their favourite author in English. Or for some people it means being able to write advanced research papers in top academic journals. There is no one definition of “proficiency” – it depends on you and your goals.

Language mastery represents the highest level of language proficiency, characterized by near-native or native-like command of the language. Achieving language mastery involves not only linguistic accuracy but also cultural competence. Mastering a language means understanding cultural references, idiomatic expressions, and the subtleties of social interactions within the language community.

While language mastery is an admirable goal, it is important to recognize that few language learners achieve complete native-like proficiency. Native-like fluency and cultural integration often require extensive immersion and long-term exposure to the language. Nonetheless, reaching a high level of language proficiency is a significant accomplishment in itself.

And this is an important point. When we think of learning a language, I think it is common to hope for “master”: to be able to use English as well as you can use your own native language. But the reality is that there are multiple different levels of proficiency, and most people will never become “masters”.

Language Learning Frameworks

So, how long does it take to learn English?

Various frameworks and guidelines can provide estimates based on language difficulty and study time. Two of the most well-known and cited frameworks are the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) guide and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). While these frameworks offer valuable insights, it is important to consider them as rough guidelines rather than strict rules.

US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) guide

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) guide is a resource that provides estimates on the difficulty and time required to learn different languages. Developed by the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, the guide is a reference for language training programs for diplomats and other government officials.

The FSI guide categorizes languages into various groups based on their linguistic similarities to English. This is important – the length of time it will take you to learn English is partly dependent on how similar your native language is to English.

These groups are known as “language families” and range from Category I to Category IV. Here’s an overview of each category:

  1. Category I: Languages closely related to English, such as Spanish, Dutch, Norwegian, French, Italian, and Portuguese. These languages share significant similarities with English in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure.
  2. Category II: Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English, such as German and Malay. While they may have some similarities with English, they also present notable challenges for English speakers.
  3. Category III: Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English, including languages like Russian, Hindi, and Finnish. These languages typically have different writing systems, grammar structures, and cultural contexts.
  4. Category IV: Languages considered exceptionally difficult for native English speakers. This category includes languages like Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic. These languages often have complex writing systems, tonal features, and vastly different cultural contexts compared to English.

The FSI guide also estimates the number of classroom hours required for a native English speaker to achieve proficiency in each category. These estimates are based on intensive language training programmes provided by the FSI. A friend of mine who worked in the UK Foreign Office (the UK equivalent of the FSI) recently spent a year studying languages full time – studying was his entire job.

While individual progress can vary, the guide serves as a general reference for language learning time if you were to fully commit to studying.

For Category I languages, the FSI estimates approximately 600 to 750 classroom hours are needed to achieve proficiency. Category II languages require around 900 classroom hours, Category III languages may take around 1,100 classroom hours, and Category IV languages may require up to 2,200 classroom hours of study.

It’s important to note that the FSI guide’s estimates are based on full-time intensive language training, which may not be relevant to you. And numerous factors outside of length of time studied can have effects on your learning speed.

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Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)

The CEFR is a widely accepted framework for language proficiency, recognized across Europe and beyond. It provides a detailed description of language levels, ranging from A1 (beginner) to C2 (proficient). Each level outlines the skills and competencies learners should possess, such as listening, speaking, reading, and writing, at a particular stage of language learning.

The CEFR also suggests approximate study times for each level. For example, reaching an A2 level might require around 180-200 hours of study, while achieving a C1 level could take 600-800 hours or more. These study times can serve as general estimates, but it’s important to remember that individual progress can vary based on various factors.

And both the CEFR and FIS guides are based on hours studied, but it is up to you to decide how many hours you want to study in a day. I mentioned the friend of mine who is a diplomat in the UK – his full-time job was learning a language so he could study for around 7 hours a day with some of the best teachers in the UK. But for many people, they spend only one or two hours a week studying… so it is going to take a lot longer to reach your targets.

It is why intensive programmes (like the one from Lingoda – today’s episode sponsor) are an amazing opportunity for all of you listening! They can help you make progress quickly and really immerse yourself into English.

Factors Affecting Language Learning Time

These two guides I mentioned are just estimates based on intensive studying. The truth is, however, that the time it takes to learn a language can vary significantly from person to person.

I’ll now take a look at several key factors that influence the length of time required to learn a language. Understanding these factors can help you navigate your language journey more effectively and set realistic expectations for your progress.

Your Native Language

Your native language directly influences your ability to learn English. If you are a speaker of a Latin language like French or Spanish, it should take you less time to learn English than if your native language is Chinese or Korean.

This is because the grammar, vocabulary, writing system, and cultural contexts are much closer – you have less to learn and can understand more from instinct.

This doesn’t mean that it will be easy or difficult for you to learn (everyone is different after all) but you should keep it in mind when you start to learn a language!

Mindset and Attitude

A positive mindset and a belief in your ability to learn a language can have a profound impact on the learning process. Embracing challenges, maintaining perseverance, and having a growth mindset can enhance motivation and accelerate language acquisition.

I’ve mentioned this in previous episodes, but research has shown that having a “fixed mindset” can make it difficult for you to progress and deal with challenges. But approaching English studying with an open mind and willingness to change approaches and styles can really help.

Personal Interest and Motivation

Having a genuine personal interest in the language and culture associated with it can be a powerful driving force for language learning. When you are genuinely engaged and motivated, you tend to invest more time and effort, leading to faster progress.

If you have a reason, a real motivating reason, to learn English, it can really make the studying process easier. You need that personal interest to keep pushing you. One study from Michigan State University showed that students in language classes performed best when they had a reason to take the class (like studying abroad or getting a job) compared to students taking the classes just for credits.


Age, Intelligence, and Learning Aptitude

While language learning is possible at any age, younger learners often have an advantage due to their brain’s greater plasticity and adaptability. However, adults can still achieve high levels of proficiency with consistent effort. Intelligence and learning aptitude can also play a role, although they are not sole determinants of language learning success.

Learning Approach and Style

The learning approach and style adopted by individuals can significantly impact language learning time. Some learners thrive in immersive environments, while others prefer structured classroom instruction or self-study. Experimenting with different approaches and finding a learning style that suits your preferences and needs can optimize language learning efficiency.


Learning Resources and Opportunities

Access to quality learning resources, such as textbooks, online courses, language exchange programs, and native speakers, can accelerate language learning. Utilizing diverse resources and seeking out opportunities for authentic language practice can enhance proficiency in a shorter timeframe.

Consistency and Practice

Consistent and regular practice is key to language learning success. Daily practice, even in short increments, is often more effective than sporadic intense study sessions. Creating a study routine and incorporating language learning into daily life can expedite progress.

Final Thought

The fascination with fast language learning is fuelled by our desire for instant gratification and the pressures of a globalized world. However, it’s crucial to address the misconceptions and unrealistic expectations that surround this obsession. Learning a language is a gradual journey that requires time, effort, and consistent practice.

It’s important to set realistic goals, embrace the different levels of proficiency, and understand that language mastery is a continuous process. So, stay motivated, enjoy the journey, and remember that every step you take brings you closer to becoming a proficient English speaker. Keep practicing, and you’ll see progress in due time.

What do you think? How long do you think it will take you to learn English?

Extended Vocabulary List

  • Fascination: Strong interest or attraction towards a particular subject or activity.
  • Fast: Rapid or quick; characterized by high speed or efficiency.
  • Language: A system of communication using symbols, words, and rules for expressing ideas and concepts.
  • Learning: The process of acquiring knowledge or skills through study, experience, or teaching.
  • Exciting: Stimulating or thrilling; causing a sense of enthusiasm or interest.
  • Rewarding: Providing satisfaction or positive outcomes as a result of effort or achievement.
  • Opportunities: Chances or possibilities for advancement, success, or new experiences.
  • Quickly: In a fast or swift manner; without delay or hesitation.
  • Episode: A distinct event or occurrence, often referring to a specific installment of a series or program.
  • Comments: Responses or remarks made in reaction to something, often written or spoken.
  • Resources: Materials or tools that can be used to aid learning or accomplish tasks.
  • Articles: Written pieces of information, often published in newspapers, magazines, or online.
  • Obsessed: Preoccupied with or overly focused on a particular topic or idea.
  • Today: The present day; the current time or era.
  • World: The Earth and all its inhabitants; the global community.
  • Instant: Immediate or without delay; happening in a very short time.
  • Gratification: Pleasure or satisfaction derived from achieving desires or needs.
  • Information: Facts or data provided about a specific topic or subject.
  • Goals: Objectives or aims set to be achieved within a certain timeframe.
  • Time: The continuous flow of events in the past, present, and future.
  • Effort: Physical or mental exertion put into accomplishing a task or goal.
  • Practice: Repeated performance or exercise of an activity to improve skills or knowledge.
  • Misconceptions: False or mistaken beliefs or ideas about a particular subject.
  • Unrealistic: Not in accordance with reality or practicality; not achievable.
  • Expectations: Anticipated outcomes or results based on certain beliefs or assumptions.
  • Complex: Intricate or consisting of multiple interconnected elements or factors.
  • Process: A series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular outcome.
  • Factors: Influential elements or conditions that affect a situation or result.
  • Fluency: The ability to speak or use a language effortlessly and accurately.
  • Proficiency: Competence or skillfulness in performing a task or using a language.
  • Communicate: Conveying information or ideas through speech, writing, or gestures.
  • Comprehend: Understanding or grasping the meaning of information or language.
  • Cultural Nuances: Subtle or specific aspects of a culture that impact communication and behavior.
  • Mastery: Complete or advanced knowledge or skill in a subject or activity.
  • Linguistic: Relating to language or the study of languages.
  • Accuracy: Precision or correctness in details, measurements, or information.
  • Competence: Having the ability or skill to perform a task or function effectively.
  • Frameworks: Organized structures or systems used as a guide for understanding or development.
  • Estimates: Approximate calculations or predictions based on available information.
  • Difficulty: The level of complexity or challenge involved in a task or activity.
  • Classroom: A space or environment where formal instruction and learning take place.
  • Commitment: Dedication or devotion to a particular goal or cause.
  • CEFR: Common European Framework of Reference for Languages; a standardized scale used to assess language proficiency.
  • Navigate: To find one’s way through or manage a situation successfully.
  • Native: Belonging to a particular place or culture by birth or origin.
  • Mindset: A particular way of thinking or approaching situations or challenges.
  • Attitude: A person’s outlook or feelings towards something or someone.
  • Motivation: The driving force or reason behind one’s actions or behavior.
  • Interest: A feeling of curiosity or desire to learn more about a subject or activity.
  • Age: The length of time a person has lived; a specific stage or period of life.
  • Intelligence: The ability to acquire knowledge, understand concepts, and apply them effectively.
  • Aptitude: Natural talent or inclination towards a particular skill or ability.
  • Approach: A method or strategy used to tackle a task or solve a problem.
  • Style: A distinctive manner or way of doing something.
  • Consistency: Regularity or uniformity in behaviour, actions, or performance.
  • Practice: Repeated performance or exercise of an activity to improve skills or knowledge.

Vocabulary Games and Activities!

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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