How to learn a language
How to learn a language

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How to learn a language

10 How long will it take?

Described image
Figure 6 Can you learn a language in three weeks?

Watch the following video, in which a group of people talk about how long they think it will take to learn a language.

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_lll_1_video_week1_voxpops1.mp4
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To get to the level I want to get to more in learning German, I think probably between one and two years. I've been using duolingo now for nine months. I'm making good progress. I'm enjoying it, which is really important. But I think if I'm going to make much more progress, I'll need to do some more formal study, which helps me understand the structure of the language rather than just-- as good as duolingo is, it's not as basic as the old fashioned tapes where you're just repeating phrases or something.
It's very interactive and I'm learning a lot with it. But I think if I'm going to meet my goals, I need to move from that sort of informal learning into a more formal context and actually study the language to some degree.
I'm learning Chinese at the moment. And I would love to be able to get to a point where I can hold a conversation with a native speaker. But unfortunately, I think this is going to take quite a long time to achieve. It's going to take many, many years I think, because you have to take into account the speaking and the listening aspects of this. So I think and the fact that I'm not living in China I think just means I have to take it gradually. But it's going to take me a number of years to get to that point.
I'm learning Spanish. The level I'm at currently is beginning advanced. I would like to continue until I have real fluency so I can speak and listen with confidence. And I hope one day to be able to return to Spain and work there.
I'm learning Japanese. And I'm hoping to be able to understand what my grandchildren say, because they are being brought up bilingual. I would like to be able to have a conversation with them. I can understand quite a lot of what they're saying. But I would like to be able to speak to them in Japanese as well.
Oh, it'll take me ages. I'm useless at remembering the vocabulary. I think I've started it all too late, but it's still, it's very good because I can understand a lot more than I did when I started.
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How long it takes you to learn a language depends on several factors:

  • the level of proficiency you want to get to
  • whether you are an experienced language learner or not
  • the intensity, regularity and efficacy of your study routine
  • how similar the language you are learning is to the language(s) you already speak
  • how complex your target language is.

If you are a native speaker of English, you might find it easier to learn German, as they are both Germanic languages that share a lot of vocabulary and phonological features, than to learn Mandarin, where you would have to get to grips with a different writing system and with the fact that Mandarin is a tonal language, and where there are no similarities with English in the vocabulary, grammar or syntax.

There are many estimates of how long it may take a learner to reach each of the CEFR levels, but as a guideline, it might take you a couple of hundred hours to move between each of the six levels. As I’ve already said, learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. So… beware of snake oil!


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