How long does it take to learn a language? Spoiler alert: I have no idea

How long does it take to learn a language?

Before I started teaching, sometime in between college and grad school, I was living abroad and taking language classes. I thought that I would become fluent in the language pretty quickly because I had started learning it as a child and was already pretty confident with the basics. It turned out that language learning was a lot harder than I had anticipated.

My teacher was an older woman in her mid-seventies who had been teaching forever. She was nice but usually really blunt with her opinions. (On the last day of class, for example, she went around the room and gave us all individual, informal critiques in front of the whole class. She told me something like, “You’re an amazing friend, but you’re just an average student.” Um..?)

Anyway, near the end of the course, buried in flashcards and still not fluent, I approached my teacher feeling kinda overwhelmed.
“How long does it take to learn a language?” I asked. “How much longer until I’m completely fluent and don’t have to carry a dictionary around with me everywhere?”

I don’t remember her answer, but I do remember that the next day she brought in a little story for our class to read. It went something like this:

There was once a young man who was walking to the beach through an unfamiliar town. He walked and walked until he saw an old man sitting near a hill. 
“Excuse me,” he asked the old man. “How long does it take to get to the beach.”
“Go on, go on, keep walking!” The old man grumbled.
The young man walked away confused, wondering if he had said anything offensive. When he reached the top of the hill, the old man called after him, “About twenty minutes.”
“Uh…Thanks, but why didn’t you tell me that before?” The young man asked. “I thought you were mad at me.”
“Mad? No!” The old man said. “I just had to see how quickly you walk.”

And the moral of that story, my teacher said, was that she has no idea how long it would take us to learn the language. Everyone learns at a different pace, everyone has a different language-learning background, and everyone puts in a different amount of effort. It’s hard for a teacher to predict how long it will take each individual student to learn.

It was thoughtful of my teacher to bring in a whole story to answer my simple question, and I appreciated that, but at the same time, that wasn’t then answer I wanted. Now that I’m an ESL teacher myself, though, I totally know what she means. Students often ask me how long it will take them to speak perfect English. Sometimes they’re impatient and disappointed in themselves for not jumping from pre-intermediate to super-advanced in two months. All I can really say for sure is that it’ll take a lot longer than two months.

I’ve heard from others that if you start from scratch and live in a country where the language is spoken, it should take about two years. But not many of my students are complete beginners when they arrive, and most don’t live in the U.S. They go home after a few weeks or a few months. Some will continue to take language classes a couple of times a week. Some will watch English movies and listen to English music. Some won’t.

So, unfortunately, it’s hard to give students the concrete answer they’re looking for. I can relate… I know what it’s like to be learning a language and worried that you’ll be learning forever. I can assure you that if you really work at it and you keep on walking, it won’t take forever. But I don’t know how long it will take.

What do you think?

How do you answer, “How long will it take?” And have you succeeded in learning a second language fluently? How long did it take you?

Please leave your comments in the box at the bottom of the page. Thank you!

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