People ask us all the time, "how long does it take to learn a language abroad?" And while the answer is kind of like a weight loss infomercial -- your results may vary -- there are certain factors that can speed up or slow down how quickly that lovely new language sticks in your brain!
We're going to take a look at which factors affect how long it takes to learn a language, including: the moments when language learning can either be gained or lost, whether or not some languages take longer to learn, and the questions to ask yourself to help define what "language learned" means to you!
While the level of effort and your surroundings can undoubtably affect how long it takes for you to pick up a language, some languages just take longer to learn than others.
Whether you're asking so you can figure out how long to study a language abroad for, or just out of sheer curiosity, let's take a look at some of these factors to help you understand just how long it will take you to learn a language abroad.
Some Languages Take Longer to Learn
While the level of effort and your surroundings can undoubtably affect how long it takes for you to pick up a language, some languages just take longer to learn than others. How long though?
The U.S. State Department has broken down the most popular world languages into different categories of difficulty for English speakers to learn. The easiest category includes Spanish, French, Italian, Swedish, and Portuguese, while the most difficult or "Superhard" languages (yes, they really call them Superhard Languages) include Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Arabic.
The Department of State has provided their estimates for length of study time required to achieve "superior proficiency" (basically fluent; but not perfect) in speaking and reading in these languages, but remember: your results may vary. These estimates are also based off of someone who has no prior knowledge of these languages, so if you already have a high school class or two under your belt, you might have less than the total to go.
Easy Languages: 23 Weeks (575 total hours of study to learn):
575 hours of study basically translates into 7 months of studying the language for 20 hours per week.
Medium Languages: 30-36 Weeks (750-900 total hours of study to learn):
To help you understand what sort of class to sign up for, think of these languages as taking 9 - 11.5 months of taking 20 hours / week of class.
Hard Languages: 44 Weeks (1,100 total hours of study to learn)
Especially if you're starting from square one, you shouldn't expect to spend less than a year studying one of these languages. 1,100 hours translates into almost 14 months of constant 20 hour / week study.
Superhard Languages: (2,200 total hours of study to learn):
State Department officials are usually given 88 weeks to perfect these languages -- but keep in mind that they typically treat language learning as a full time job. If you've got the time for it, sure 88 weeks. But basically, don't expect to spend less than two years nailing these languages.
They estimate that the above-mentioned "Superhard" languages require 88 weeks, or one and a half years, and an additional year of in-country study. Even the State Department recognizes how important immersion and language learning abroad is.
So like a good camera, focus!
What Level of Fluency Are You Trying to Achieve?
Are you trying to reach near-native fluency? Do you need this language for a job abroad? Or are you just trying to get fluent enough to order meals out without embarrassing yourself... and perhaps make some small talk?
Obviously, the lower the level you're trying to achieve, the less time it will take for you to reach there. As we mentioned before, the above estimates are for getting really, really, darn good at a language. Like, work at an embassy abroad type good.
If you're just trying to be conversational, estimate about half of that allotted time. Meaning, after 3.5 months of constant Spanish study in an immersion environment, you'll be confident enough to get by, order meals, ask for a hotel room, directions, and even make a friend or two -- all without any prior knowledge.
Many people are thrilled simply to be able to converse in a foreign language, and to do so in a foreign country! To these people I say: you'll feel the pride of having learned a language faster than you expect!
Immersion and Necessity Speed Up Language Learning
Whether you're taking classes, interning, working, or just living abroad, the moments when the language will stick the most in your brain are those "Oh sh*t!" moments of panic. Is your bus to work cancelled? Do you need to ask someone for directions? Is the waiter at your cafe yelling at you for some unknown reason??
These moments, when your brain is panicking and desperately searching for some language to spout out to save itself, is when it is most important to condition your brain to look down the new language pathways you've created, and solidify them as legitimate.
How much time you're able to invest in your language learning abroad obviously depends on how much spare time you have to spare.
Furthermore, by being forced to use a language while abroad, and not being able to fall back on your native language, you keep yourself from saying stuff like "Je voudrais un.... glass of beer?" and instead you're forced to work around these language gaps -- things you don't yet know. It builds your confidence, flow, and sometimes, whoever you're talking with will give you the word you were looking for, and you'll learn a new way of saying something in the process.
Studying a language in a place where many people speak your native language, and you can fall back on it, could slow down the language learning process if you don't fight it. Conversely, a full immersion environment could help you speed up how many days or weeks it takes for you to learn a language.
How Much Free Time Will You Spend Solidifying Your Learning?
By continuing to remain in language-learning mode, even when relaxing/resting, your familiarity with and ease of recall of your new language are increased and reinforced, and this ease of use is what makes us feel like we know a language.
Learning a language takes work, and you'll have to keep your brain on "French mode" or "Spanish mode" even when you're at home doing nothing. It's not just about how many hours of class you take -- watching movies, listening to music, speaking with friends, reading books, and making an effort to look up words you don't understand are all part of the overall input that's essential to really learning a language.
Don't expect for 20 hours of Spanish classes while living in Colombia is enough to get you fluent. You need to do some self studying too!
Language isn't just an active, focused activity. It is also the most passive thing in the world for the human brain; we cannot help but think, help but speak, help but identify things by name. It is in these "passive" moments that your language brain needs to be trained to passively select your second language, and not casually default to your first.
How Much Time Do You Have?
Of course, not all of us are fortunate enough to get sponsored by the U.S. State Department to spend 88 consecutive weeks learning a superhard language. How much time you're able to invest in your language learning abroad obviously depends on how much spare time you have to spare.
Hopefully, though, you'll be able to work something out that works with your schedule -- and don't discount the importance of working on your language retention once you're back home.