Sunday, October 4, 2020

How many hours does it take to learn a new language if you are a native English speaker?


How many hours does it take to learn a new language if you are a native English speaker?

How many hours does it take to learn a new language if you are a native English speaker, how long before you achieve fluency in a foreign language?

English is the most international language on the globe. If you are a native English speaker chances are, you can get along quite comfortably in most western countries without learning a word in another language. In Europe especially, with enough luck, someone out there may know enough English to initiate and sustain basic communication situations.

But of course, for various other reason either personal, cultural or work-related, you will find yourself in need of learning a foreign language. The next natural question after deciding to learn a new language is: how many hours does it take to learn a foreign language and achieve fluency?

It depends a lot on how motivated you are and how much time you have at your disposal for such an endeavor. Depending on these two factors the time spent learning a new language vary greatly.

Interagency Language Roundtable scale or the IRL scale

It is grading scale used by the US government to scale employees and diplomats working for the FSI (Foreign Service Institute).
You’ll find this scale to be the most accurate when it comes to native English speakers learning a foreign language.

Level 0No proficiency
Level 1Elementary proficiency
Level 2Limited working proficiency
Level 3Professional working proficiency
Level 4Full professional proficiency
Level 5Native or bilingual proficiency

Fluency is practically reached at level 3 (professional working proficiency), so basically, this level will be our main benchmark.

But first, we need to clarify a certain aspect of learning foreign languages as a native English speaker: some languages are more difficult to learn than others.

Why? Because English and some languages haven’t been in contact with one another for thousands of years and evolved in a totally different way.

Easiest language to learn for English speakers

The data presented below reflects a study held by FSI (Foreign Service Institute) of the US government. Again, this is probably the most accurate data regarding how much time takes for a native English speaker to become fluent in a particular new language.

The FSI has over 800 language learning courses in more than 70 languages with more than 70 years of experience in training US diplomats and foreign affairs employees.

Tier 1: Let’s start with the languages that are most closely related to English

Germanic languages

Afrikaansabout 575 hours or 23 weeks
Danishabout 575 hours or 23 weeks
Dutchabout 575 hours or 23 weeks
Norwegianabout 575 hours or 23 weeks
Swedishabout 575 hours or 23 weeks


Romance Languages

Frenchabout 600 hours or 24 weeks
Italianabout 600 hours or 24 weeks
Portugueseabout 600 hours or 24 weeks
Romanianabout 600 hours or 24 weeks
Spanishabout 600 hours or 24 weeks


Even though FSI classifies all the above languages as having the same difficulty score and the same average time of learning (575-600 hours) it only makes sense that Germanic based languages like Danish or Dutch to be generally easier to learn compared with any of the Romance languages like Italian or Romanian.

But most of the languages above are highly easy to learn for very good reasons:

  • use the same alphabet as English
  • comparable stress and intonation patterns
  • already share a number of vocabulary words

Tier 2: Similar to English

German750 hours or 30 weeks


Even though German is the most Germanic language of them all, it doesn’t come very natural to learn for native English speakers.

The grammar is more complicated and difficult to understand, hence German gets a tier 2 difficulty score, but of course, there are other Germanic languages out there that are much harder to master, like Icelandic.

Tier 3: Languages that may have cultural and linguistic differences compared to English

Indonesian900 hours or 36 weeks
Malaysian900 hours or 36 weeks
Swahili900 hours or 36 weeks


Tier 4: Languages that are profoundly different from English

Polish1100 hours or 44 weeks
Croatian1100 hours or 44 weeks
Latvian1100 hours or 44 weeks
Greek1100 hours or 44 weeks
Turkish1100 hours or 44 weeks
Icelandic1100 hours or 44 weeks
Finnish1100 hours or 44 weeks
Estonian1100 hours or 44 weeks
Hungarian1100 hours or 44 weeks


Above are just a part of the European languages classified as tier 4 FSI. The list goes on with other languages from all over the world, like Mongolian, Nepali, Thai, Xhosa, Zulu or Hebrew. All of them taking about 1100 hours or 44 weeks to become fluent in.

Hardest language to learn for English speakers

All of the tier 5 languages are highly sophisticated and complex compared to English having an average learning curve up to 4 times the period it takes for the average English speaker to learn Dutch for example. So arm yourself with a lot of patience and plenty of determination.

Based on all the data and testimonies English speakers made over the years, the hardest language to learn award may go to Japanese due to thousands of characters you need to memorize while having three different writing varieties.

Tier 5: Extraordinary level of difficulty

Arabic2200 hours or 88 weeks
Chinese2200 hours or 88 weeks
Japanese2200 hours or 88 weeks
Korean2200 hours or 88 weeks


But don’t let all these statistics scare you! People around the world are learning and assimilating new languages every day. Besides, these are still human languages; it’s not like you need to decipher an alien dialect. All of the above are languages made up by humans, and with enough determination and willpower, you can learn any language on this list.

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