How long does it take to learn a language?

November 10, 2023

Ahh, the ultimate (and sometimes tricky-to-answer) question contemplated by every language learner out there:

“How long will it take me to learn a new language?”

It always helps to know where the finish line is, doesn’t it? Especially if you want (or need!) to pick up a new language before a certain date or deadline. 

Perhaps you’re looking to speed through your journey to fluency because you’ve got a holiday looming and want to master a few phrases, or perhaps there’s an exam on the horizon that you need to study for.

Whatever your reason may be, we’ve got a short and long answer for you, informed by our own research and expertise. 

How long it takes to learn a new language: the short answer

You can learn the basics in 22 hours

Learning a foreign language is an experience that’s very personal and individual to you and your learning style

Having said that, based on the results of our 100 million learners on Busuu (the app that makes learning a language easier for everyone), a research team recently calculated that 22 hours of Busuu Premium is equivalent to one college semester of language study.

Although we wouldn’t recommend cramming 22 hours of learning into one day!

At Busuu, we think it best to break up the amount of dedication into a certain amount of studying time per day. Based on our learners on Busuu, the evidence has shown that learning for around 10 minutes a day will bring the best results. 

Now, the ‘how many days’ is completely up to you.

How long it takes to learn a new language: the longer answer

While it may take an average of 22 hours to learn the basics in any language, in truth a lot of factors come into play when it comes to defining exactly how long it takes to learn a new language. 

Understanding what these factors are will help you understand how long it should take you to achieve the level of fluency you’re looking to reach. 

Consider these 6 key factors when calculating how many hours it’ll take you to learn a new language

1. How difficult you’ll find a language to learn

It’s fair to say that you’ll find some languages are easier to learn than others.

This ‘ease’ factor is often defined by how closely the language you’re trying to learn relates to your mother tongue.

The US Foreign Service Institute, where government workers train in foreign languages, categorise language difficulty into five categories for native English speakers:

  • Category 1: world languages (ones that are most similar to English), including French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.
  • Category 2: more challenging languages, such as German, Malay or Haitian Creole.
  • Category 3: languages with “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English”. Here you’ll find Polish, Finnish, Turkish, Russian and more.
  • Category 4: officially “super-hard” languages. Prepare to be challenged by languages like Japanese, Arabic or Chinese.

2. What level of proficiency you want to reach

Of course, you could learn how to say hello, goodbye and thank you in your target language and call it quits.

So here again, the Foreign Service Institute has a handy list that ranks language skills from elementary proficiency (where you meet travel needs and basic courtesy), all the way to native or bilingual proficiency.

Note: the University of Cambridge Language Assessment has a suggested amount of study time required for their exams based on similar proficiency levels. It’s a great guideline.

3. How you study best

You’d think that the more you study, the quicker you learn. That’s not always the case.

Studying grammar for several hours a day might work for some, but it’s not a particularly sustainable or healthy way to go about it.

This is why we at Busuu created a Study Plan feature, which helps learners stay organised, motivated, and on top of their individual goals.

More often than not, it’s not how much you study, but how you study.

4. How many languages you already know

Here’s the deal:

It’s unfair (or great, if you’re bilingual, trilingual or even a polyglot!), but the more languages you speak, the easier and faster it’ll be to learn a new one.

So if you’re already a pro at learning languages, chances are you’ll already have a few tips and tricks up your sleeve. 

If this rings true for you, make sure you use them!

5. How old you are

You’ll find countless academic studies that devote pages upon pages to the question of age, and how it impacts your ability to learn a language.

Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t technically harder for older students to learn a new language. 

But it will impact your approach to learning – and potentially how long it’ll take you. Best practice for teaching a child a new language differs wildly to the top tips we’d offer to adults pursuing the same endeavour

So whether you’re 16 or 60, you’ll have to take your preferred learning pace when making your calculations.

6. How many immersion opportunities you can find

Theory is great ‘n all.

But practising with native speakers is the one thing that could shave hours off the amount of time it takes you to truly get to grips with a language. 

This is because gabbling away with a group of friendly natives gives you a chance to test – and enjoy – your new-found language skills.

Although it’s fair to say that finding such a thing, whether at home or abroad, is the most difficult (and often the most expensive!) bit! 

Looking for ways to immerse yourself in another language and master a language in record time, without walking outside your front door?

We’re Busuu, and our digital learning experience rivals language immersion in another country.

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