How long until you are fluent in a language?
May 26, 2012 1:31 AM   Subscribe

If you have the chance to study full-time in a non-native situation, how long does it take to become fluent in a language?

I realise this is a bit of a 'how long is a piece of string' question, but looking for people's views and opinions. If you are learning a language in your home (English speaking) country, either via a formal university course or an online course, and you are starting from a basis of little or no knowledge of a language, and you can devote yourself to full-time or near full-time study, how long could it take to become fluent? By fluent I mean able to hold proper conversations with a native speaker, consume media in that language, navigate your way around day to day situations?

I am actually looking to learn more than one language, I will have access to media in those languages, and will probably be able to make sporadic visits to the countries where the languages are spoken (Japanese, French and German) to practice. (Actually I do speak a small amount of Japanese).

My current situation is I am learning Japanese with part-time study online. I also want to learn German for various reasons. I have always wanted to learn a Romance language, and now have the situation starting in September to do a languages degree, but it has to be German combined with something else, so I am thinking of French (the only other option was Spanish). But I will also be keeping up with the Japanese, and next year I will be able to devote myself to studying these languages full time
posted by Megami to Education (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My experience is that if you work intensively at it, you can get to being able to hold a conversation and consume simple media (tabloid-style newspapers, websites aimed at the general reader, simple TV shows) within six months. But I have found it easiest to concentrate on one language at a time at this sort of intensive study.

(My experiences have been with German, French, various Scandinavian languages, Japanese, and Basque. The Basque one is what I am really thinking of here, because the others were all learned either quite non-intensively or in immersion situations, so aren't comparable. But by the time I learned Basque I had four other languages already, and I think it gets easier as you learn HOW to learn a language. So maybe a bit longer for your first language.)

And as to being able to talk about any topic, read any book, etc, more like two or three years, OR the aforementioned six months plus a one to two month immersion trip.
posted by lollusc at 2:04 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My dad started studying spanish at home and making weekend trips to a language school in mexico (he worked a lot, so maybe not "full-time" study) and it took him about a year and a half to become very proficient and 5 years to pretty much fluent. He was in his late 50's and he felt that slowed him down a bit.
posted by misspony at 2:14 AM on May 26, 2012

..hold proper conversations with a native speaker, consume media in that language, navigate your way around day to day situations...

These are very different language goals and very broad. There are a ton of factors involved in how long it takes to gain fluency in a language, including how much of your first language can be transferred to the new language, your general ability for learning languages, and how much time you spend using the language in authentic situations (to name only a few).

As you've probably discovered, Japanese is especially tough for most native English speakers. If you're studying it in an English-dominated environment, do what you can to seek out native Japanese speakers. You're not going to learn to speak with much fluency competently any other way. (Watching TV/anime is fine for listening practice, but it will do nothing for your productive skills and exposes you to the danger of learning "anime Japanese," which contains intonation and expressions not used in daily conversation among the vast majority of native speakers.)

Also, lollusc's six month reading estimate is very ambitious for most language learners and won't apply to your Japanese unless you have a rare knack for learning kanji. Plan on learning at least 800-1000 kanji before you'll be able to read authentic material produced for native speaking adults. (1000 kanji is roughly 7th grade level.)

It sounds like you should narrow your goals a bit and focus on building the specific language needed to meet them.

Good luck! (MeMail me if you'd like any tips on Japanese. I've got an M.A. in linguistics and have been studying Japanese for 10 years and passed the N1 on the JLPT.)
posted by Kevtaro at 2:35 AM on May 26, 2012

Personally I quite like this article on What is Fluency?

You have achieved a level of fluency when you have mastered it. The levels:
1. Novice: You have no idea - or perhaps just a handful of phrases.
2. Survivor: You manage to understand and be understood in the language if you have to - but your and your interlocutors have to jump through hoops.
3. Conversationalist: You can readily understand conversations going on around you and join in fluidly.
4. Debater: You can do advanced things with the language - such as teach in it.
5. Native speaker: You have been speaking the language since you were a kid

You are talking about level 3 on the scale. As a personal opinion I would say that mastering each stage given your criteria might take the following amount of time
Novice: a week.
Survivor: a month
Conversationalist: a year
Debator (which is as high as you can go): 3 years
posted by rongorongo at 2:51 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am still struggling with (at least aspects of) Japanese after living here for 10 years, so I don't know that I can answer this without bias, but, I will always remember when I was first studying Japanese at college, near the end of my first semester, my classmates and I were working on basic vocabulary and grammar points, and down the hall in the first-semester French class, they were reading a novel!!
posted by segatakai at 4:03 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depends what you mean by "proper conversation," but if you really pushed yourself in French (I mean with language tutors, immersion, intensive memorization, etc) you could get to that level in about a year, I believe. If you work hard, but not as obsessively, two years.

As for Japanese: if you go and live in Japan and do nothing but study Japanese and talk to Japanese people all day, possibly two years. Doing it outside of Japan.... I would say that this really depends on your personal language learning abilities, and what methodologies you're willing to use. Probably you can "navigate day to day situations" in around two years of serious study. In any case, if reading is a priority, it would be good to learn all 2000+ Joyo kanji as quickly as you practically can.
posted by shoyu at 4:35 AM on May 26, 2012

I spent my junior year in the south of France with a bunch of other college kids studying on the program and what I noticed is that the students that forged close friendships/relationships with the locals speaking every day in French those were the kids that progressed the fastest (took me six months to be proficient/conversational but I was not starting from scratch, had been taking french since the third grade). To do this, I asked my profs to set me up with two different families I ate dinner with every week, and I was lucky enough to find a French boyfriend, and fall madly in love with - and we talked every day. I was also close with his sisters; I was tutoring one in English. When I went over I decided to really not hang out with my american friends - to only see them in class and outside of class it was a focus on absorbing the language in any possible way, music, theater, films, people. If you are lucky enough to find a few native speakers interested in forming a friendship conducting it in that language you will become proficient much faster - but you have to keep pushing yourself. Look up every word you don't know and then use it three times the next day. Back here at home, I rarely use my french but I keep it up by listening to french music, watching french films and participating in embassy events.
posted by BlueMartini7 at 6:15 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience you can divide your comfort with a language into four aspects, and proficiency in one does not translate into proficiency in another:

1. Fluency in reading
2. Fluency in listening
3. Fluency in writing
4. Fluency in speaking

These are listed in the order of how difficult they are for me generally, but a lot depends on the language. I think it's always easiest to understand or consume information (reading, listening) than it is to produce it (writing, speaking), but you will probably find that one pair, reading/writing or listening/speaking, will be easiest for you. With Japanese, reading and writing might be the hardest, but with French, listening and speaking might be.

My advice would be to focus as much on producing as you do on consuming, because it is about a billion times harder to compose a correct sentence in another language than it is to understand one, and you should start early. This is how you start thinking in a language, and this is how immersion works - by forcing you to participate, so that you can't get the salt until you can ask for it. It's hard and uncomfortable and embarrassing, which is why it's so hard to push yourself from the comfort of your own home. If you can't meet anyone who speaks Japanese, keep a blog! Write an entry in it everyday, no matter how short, but only in Japanese.

I think in about a year, you can become proficient in reading and listening. In about two or three, in writing and speaking (shorter if you were immersed). It would be much much longer before you would get puns, references, and other jokes, and longer than that before you could tell a good story or use slang convincingly. I hope this isn't discouraging! I don't mean it to be. It just takes a lot longer to learn a language than most people realize, because everyone who took Spanish in high school thinks they speak it.

Oh, and I didn't mean to disparage consuming as much media in that language as you can. It's an awesome awesome thing to do. Just don't forget trying to speak and write as well.
posted by ke rose ne at 7:49 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I did a year in Germany as a high school exchange student. It took me about two months to start to understand what was going on, and another month to be able to reply easily. At six months I was conversing pretty smoothly, but still had trouble understanding the news. After a year I was pretty fluent, but I felt like I could have done with another year to be completely comfortable with high school level German (writing essays etc.). And even then, my adjective endings would probably still have been a bit dodgy.

It would be highly dependent on how much effort you put in and how much opportunity you had to hear and speak the language. Also, your first foreign language will probably be harder than subsequent languages, and languages closer to English will obviously be easier.
posted by kjs4 at 8:02 AM on May 26, 2012

Just realised you aren't talking immersion, sorry. That being said, studying full time would probably be about the same, except that the fluency in conversation would not be as good (grammar would probably be better though!). I think it would be really hard to simulate conversation.
posted by kjs4 at 8:08 AM on May 26, 2012

I had the same experience as kjs4, but with french. I was in a no-english situation, lived in my dictionary and definitely considered myself fluent at 6mos. If it wasn't total immersion I imagine it would have taken far, far longer.
posted by getmetoSF at 8:33 AM on May 26, 2012

I took a year and a half of college Japanese, without studying too intensively but with the help of my Japanese housemate and her many friends who came over and spoke mostly Japanese, forcing me to work on my listening in order to participate in delicious gossip. At that point I was probably a Survivor on rongorongo's scale.

Then I spent 6 months living in Japan and jumped up to Conversationalist! (Unfortunately since moving away, I have probably slipped back to Survivor, or some midpoint between the two.) And I have never been literate at all. So yeah, learning Japanese definitely takes a long time and a lot of effort, but if you can find some Japanese friends, it will help you a lot. I certainly got further in my three college courses than classmates with no extracurricular listening practice did. Immersion is probably the only way to learn Japanese at any speed. It's tough.
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:51 AM on May 26, 2012

I think you could get proficient in about a year, but strongly suspect that studying a pack of languages simultaneously will slow you down. (Perhaps you could learn them serially instead of polylinguistically :) ?)

Also, different people are going to learn differently. I am good at communicating with people, joking, learning slang, but crummy at learning advanced reading skills. My friend H is the opposite and inhales grammar -- he may speak slowly but every last participle is in its correct place. So YMMV there too.
posted by feets at 10:20 AM on May 26, 2012

It's like asking how long does it take to become a championship basketball player. Most people never get completely fluent (including seamless accent), and everyone's on a different time scale, depending on how "natural" language learning is for them.

I can tell you that a very important parameter is your willingness to speak wrong. People who are embarrassed to hem and haw and make mistakes generally take a lot longer, but speak/read a lot better in the end. People who'll blithely plow ahead with terrible language will (if they're diligent about it) gradually hone it better and better. The downside is that such people generally stop improving once they hit a point where they can duly communicate (even if their grammar's funny, accen'ts poor, and vocabulary's limited to just the sort of words they use every day).
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:08 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The "Language Continuum" guide [pdf] by the Foreign Service Institute might be helpful to you, especially p. 51, "Approximate Learning Expectations at the Foreign Service Institute." It breaks down the expected number of hours in the classroom that a bright, motivated native English speaker would need to go from zero knowledge of a particular language to a relatively high level of oral and reading fluency. The language learners these charts are based on are not usually in an immersion situation but are in an intensive full-time learning environment (22 hrs per week, with 2-3 hours a day of directed self-study).

The chart separates target languages into several categories: those that are closer to English and thus easier to learn; those that are significantly different and thus harder to learn; and those that are very difficult for English speakers to master.

According to the chart, it would typically take a bright, motivated native English speaker 24 weeks (575-600 classroom hours) to go from absolute beginner to "professionally fluent" in French; at least 30 weeks (750 hours) for German; and 88 weeks (2200 hours) for Japanese.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:44 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

This varies significantly depending on the language that you are learning, and whether you speak other languages that have similar structures/characters to it.
posted by jojobobo at 2:26 AM on May 27, 2012

Thanks for some excellent answers everyone. As I stated in the intro question, I realise there are a lot of variables, hence the 'how long is a piece of string' but you have given me some great information and ideas here.

I realise learning more than one language simultaneously is not the optimum way to do things, but it is the situation I have to work with. Hopefully I might get away with 'just' Japanese for another 15 months and then start German and French, which might help a little.
posted by Megami at 12:28 AM on May 28, 2012

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