How Long Does It Take To Learn a Language?

Renato Ganoza/Flickr

Renato Ganoza/Flickr

Learning a new language can be a tricky task, but with all the benefits that come with knowing another language in today’s globalized economy, you will never regret having spent the time.

When it comes to learning a language, there are several factors that impact how long it takes you to become fluent. These include: your aptitude for languages, the time you have to study, the quality of that study, your age, and the difficulty of the language you want to learn.

Which language gives you the best return on time spent learning? It depends on where you live, the people you work with, where you want to travel, and the range of people across the world who speak the language, including non-native speakers.

The Case for Learning Romance Languages

English, Spanish, and French are some of the most widely-spoken languages. Mandarin is the language with the most speakers, except almost all of them reside in China, which limits the usability of Mandarin in different countries.

Generally, for English speakers, the easiest languages to learn are those closely related to English, the most common of which are Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian. It’s estimated that you’ll need less than 600 hours of required class time to become proficient in these languages.

Among the more challenging to learn are Arabic, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, each requiring an average of 2,200 hours of class time due to the large differences between these languages and English.

Whatever the difficulty level of the language you choose to pick up, it’s important to remember that the biggest barrier between you and becoming fluent is your motivation.

The Most Difficult Languages

The U.S government classifies languages according to how difficult they are for native English speakers to learn:

Category 1 – Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese
Category 2 – German, Indonesian
Category 3 – Hebrew, Russian, Persian, Tagalog
Category 4 – Modern Standard Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Japanese

Arabic’s lack of vowels makes it a particularly tricky language for native English speakers to pick up, accounting for its position in the most difficult Category 4. Familiar with Arabic? Test your mastery with our Arabic Level Test.

Languages like Chinese and Japanese contain thousands of unique characters that are hard to memorize. When it comes to evaluating difficulty, in some instances, the reading/writing and speaking of a language need to be separated. Japanese, for example, is much easier to converse in than it is to read and write.

Your ROI for Learning New Language

If your company expands into new markets and needs to improve the language skills of staff members, the higher-ups would be wise to offer incentives. Some employees will appreciate the opportunity, while others will dread the thought of having to learn a new language, but whatever the response it’s worth acquiring the international business skill-set.

Your ROI on learning new language will depend on how long the process takes and what you or employees forgo in order to study. If you use the new language to communicate more effectively with existing business partners or potential clients, for example, then it will pay off in short order. It takes work, of course; unfortunately, you aren’t three hours away from becoming an interpreter.

The time you and/or your staff spend learning a new language could not be used in a more productive manner. Tell us in the comments below what language you want to learn next.