How long does is take to learn French?
September 20, 2011 12:42 PM   Subscribe

Language Learning Filter: How long is it going to take me, a person speaking a Germanic language (English) to go from the first tier of intermediate to advanced and/or fluent in a Romance language (French), assuming 20 hours of classes a week?

I know individual ability varies, so ball park would be fine. However I'm spending about four hours every week day (actually more like 4 1/2 h), actively participating in a 20 person class and I'm trying to figure out roughly how long this under taking is going to last. The school offers two month classes, in six levels, of which I'm currently in #3, but exact calculations based on their example are hampered by the fact that they encourage repeating classes.

I ask this because student living means being ludicrously poor, and while I don't hate my job, I'm not sure I can sustain making $12K a year and also having no time to cook, clean or do errands for more than six months.
posted by Phalene to Education (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Foreign Service Institute, which trains State Department employees in something like 80+ languages, thinks that it takes 24 weeks of 40 hours per week (with 4-5 contact hours daily, and the rest in the lab or studying) for people to become proficient, but not fluent, in world languages like French and Spanish.

If you are immersed and able to speak it all the time, your timeline would probably be shorter.
posted by eulily at 12:55 PM on September 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Well, it takes a long, long time for a regular adult to become fluent at a second language they're learning through books and classes-- probably years, plus eventually some time spent in a place where the language is spoken. But it's not all or nothing. Every stage along the way is valuable. Whatever you learn, you learn. And its mind-expanding to gain insight into the nature of language in general in the way that happens when you're struggling with a language other than your own. And you can put aside this interest and pick it up at various points throughout your life depending on your circumstances.
posted by Paquda at 1:02 PM on September 20, 2011

Impossible to answer. Everyone learns languages differently, at difference rates. Some people (like me) can't learn them at all.
posted by Melismata at 1:08 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've heard something like 600 hours to learn an easier one like French.

I've had somewhere around 400 French and 300 Spanish -- you're probably farther along than I -- and in both cases, I can get the gist of a written or plainly spoken text, depending on vocabulary. A news report, where I know what a Sarkozy is, is much more achievable than a fantasy novel. I can follow along with a Spanish movie with Spanish subtitles, but the language as spoken naturally is too fast for me to get. I've travelled to Spanish speaking countries and taken care of my daily needs entirely without English, although no one has mistaken me for a conversationalist.

It's loads of verbs and tenses as you progress for a while, but ultimately vocabulary is the killer at higher levels; you need tens of thousands of words to approach fluency, and that's something that classes are not good at. Even self-study is dull as dishwater. To move off the plateau, some form of immersion is needed. Maybe with the internet, you can access the movies and French-language readings needed to really immerse yourself. I've never had the self-discipline to, myself.

That said, I would never discourage someone from learning something about a foreign language; it's like calisthenics for the brain. And you are also learning how to learn a foreign language, which is a useful secondary skill -- I was pleased to see that Russian has the same verb conjugation and pronoun structure (in some tenses, at least) as the Romance language je/tu/il/nous/vous/ils.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:08 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your profile says you're in Montreal which is great because it means you can continue to learn outside of the classroom by consuming French language media. Train yourself to watch stuff in French, read French webpages, etc.

Your schoolwork teaches you the fundamentals of the language and grammar. Once you learn the basics you'll be able to keep learning on your own. They will never be able to teach you everything, but when you're in the real world speaking the language, you'll be exposed to new words and you'll have to learn them. Or better yet, you'll develop the ability to get the gist of what people are saying by the surrounding words you do know and the context. Watch a movie in French w/o the English subtitles. If you get lost, watch it again with the subs on. An exercise my teacher had us do in Mexico was to buy a newspaper or magazine and read it from cover to cover w/o your dictionary. Even stories you don't care about. Rather than look up the words while you're reading, highlight or underline the ones you don't know and then look them up later. But you try and get the gist before the dictionary comes out.

The immersion program I did in Mexico to re-learn Spanish (I took it in high school but aside forgot most of it) lasted a month. In that time I learned most of the tenses (I only really grasped the present in HS). I was in classes for 6 hours a day (4 hours in a small group -4 students, 1 instructor) in discussions, 2 in a classroom (20 people) where we learned vocab, grammar, history) for a month. It made me pretty fluent. But it is the followup stuff I do (there's a huge Spanish speaking population and so I have many media choices). What I do the worst is speaking but I try and practice with native speakers whenever I can. The trouble is, most native speakers I come into contact with speak English so they'll often want to use English when I falter. Although I'm introverted, I force myself to ask Spanish speakers questions and to chat. I'm sure Quebecois are like the Spanish speakers I talk to in Mexico in that they really appreciate that you're making an effort to speak their language and will be patient with you.

So the tl;dr: Take the classes until you learn the tenses and grammar then commit yourself to several hours a week learning the language on your own outside of formal classes. If you stop learning when you stop the classes, you'll forget what you'll learn and never will become fluent.
posted by birdherder at 1:30 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Without at least some total immersion, I think it is impossible.

I studied Spanish for years and years - grade school, high school, college, on my own after college. I wanted to learn. When I had my first immersion experience, I realized how little I knew. I could speak, but it needs to be fluid and subconscious. With some immersion, it all came together pretty quickly.
posted by Flood at 1:42 PM on September 20, 2011

It's not impossible, but with those hours it will be very very difficult to get up to an advanced level. Fluency will be near-impossible to achieve if you're learning only in a classroom with 20 others and only with that many hours per week.

I learned French from scratch, full-time, for 50 weeks. And I would say that I was a solid intermediate after that much. And that's roughly 1,750 hrs. Friends of mine on foreign-language training right now for romance languages are all doing full-time studies in groups of no more than three people, including at least a month of immersion in most cases, to get up to an advanced level.

That's all to say that it's going to take you a lot of work outside of the classroom. French news, podcasts, finding a conversation partner (there are always Francophones looking to brush up on their English - find one online, it's invaluable.) But you can do it if you work your butt off.
posted by fso at 1:48 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your profile shows you are in Montreal, but does not indicate your relationship status. If you *really* want to ramp up your language acquisition, start dating someone French-speaking (assuming that's an option for you.)

As a hopeful suitor once told my sister, "A shared pillow is the best dictionary."

Failing that, get some French-speaking roommates. Join other activities that will be all French-speaking- it doesn't have to be a book club, obviously, but knitting or bowling or pottery or curling or whatever, it will force you to practice and expand your vocabulary.
posted by ambrosia at 1:51 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

It's too easy to speak English in Montreal. Can you arrange to go live in Chicoutimi (Saguenay) for awhile? Even Quebec City would be more of a plunge, plus the accent there is a little easier to understand than Montreal joual.
posted by zadcat at 2:34 PM on September 20, 2011

I learned classroom French in high-school and college. 4 years in HS, one year in college, and while I could probably still passably read it, people would have to speak slowly for me to understand it. However, that's a retention issue.

I would bet you'd have the basics, at 40h/week, within about 12 weeks: Enough to travel in France without making anyone speak English. If you go to

I recommend paying attention to French pronunciation, both in the alphabet and word, including accented vowels. The rules of English pronunciation don't apply, so don't even try them. Try not to sweat too much the gender of nouns-- French people know them instinctively an know you don't, so don't worry about gender errors where objects are concerned. That said, when you do know the gender, pay attention to the pronunciation changes. Sometimes it seems sexist, but that's the least of French's problems.

French has a lot more regularity to English. Basically 3 kinds of verbs, plus a handful of important irregular verbs. Something like 40 percent of English is from French, so a lot of words will see familiar even if they aren't used the same. (Again, use the French pronunciation-- your ability to speak English stopped impressing people years ago. :-) There is a bit of a grind in memorizing vocabulary words.

Finally, there's a teaching technique called "dictée" (dictation). The teach speaks in accented French, and you write what they said. This is the time to learn to hear what you already know how to read.

Bon courage!
posted by Sunburnt at 5:18 PM on September 20, 2011

I really appreciate the general french learning advice, however I'm not at a basic level. I am at intermediate level, trying to take this to advanced level, and there isn't much information easily google-able about this.
posted by Phalene at 8:35 PM on September 20, 2011

I really appreciate the general french learning advice, however I'm not at a basic level. I am at intermediate level, trying to take this to advanced level

OK, sorry to be awkward here. . . but what do you mean by "intermediate" and "advanced"?
posted by Mister Bijou at 11:31 PM on September 20, 2011

The term that will help you with your googling is 'intermediate plateau'. It's tough but sweat it out it's worth it.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:17 AM on September 21, 2011

Generally in educational materials french is presented as coming in three levels- the basic kind which usually includes some small vocabulary and present tense, passe compose and futur proche, and maybe conditional/imparfait. Intermediate adds more tenses (the conditonnel, futur simple, the subjunctive) and things like a tense you only The standard "learn french" books you can buy at the book store default to beginner, but I can already fumble around with sometimes grammatically incorrect-but-perfectly-comprehensible mumbling in stores:

"Une autre taille s'il vous plait?" "Ne frappez pas, monsieur, je n'ai pas votre portefeuille." "A demain, je vais avoir mal, si il fait beau." "Je voudrais un chocolat chaud avec en plus crème fouettée!"
posted by Phalene at 10:28 AM on September 21, 2011

« Older Why is snot yellow? And where does it come from?   |   Is my uncle out of line, or am I? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.