How Long It Takes to Learn a New Language: Speed Up the Process

Learning a new language can be both challenging and exhilarating. It takes time and dedication to reach fluency, but how long does it take? There are many different methods for learning a language: self-study, college courses, immersion programs, etc.

These have all been shown to work for people of varying ages and speaking levels. In this blog post, we will discuss the different ways you can learn a new language and offer some tips on speeding up the process.

How long does it take to learn a new language?

Basic words can be learned in a few days, but you’ll need to use them in conversations. To hold a basic conversation and become semi-fluent, it can take several months to a year of daily practice. To master a new language, it will take many years and up to a decade.

The amount of time it takes a person is dependent upon three things:

  1. The amount of time, effort, and consistency the student puts in. If the student practices and learns every day, they will progress much faster than the student who is only practicing once or twice per week.
  2. The resources available to the student. They need to speak the language often and need access to native speakers or tutors already fluent in the language. A student can’t progress without speaking the language with others.
  3. The learning method. Traditional methods and classroom learning can take longer. Not always, but many use outdated techniques and don’t take advantage of the more recent neuroscience discoveries. There are some “learning hacks” and shortcuts you can take to jump-start learning a new language. We’ll cover some of them in this post.

5 Stages Of Learning a New Language

Educators have observed that there are five distinct stages in language acquisition. These observations are based on K-12 children who are taught in a classroom setting. These stages, and the length of time it takes to learn, will apply to adults just the same.

You can speed up this process, but if your goal is to speak fluently, I’d say these numbers are fairly accurate.

Stage 1: Pre-Production (0-6 Months)

The six-week silent period in language acquisition is when students have not yet learned to speak the new foreign language, but they are beginning to understand it. At this stage, they are active listeners and trying to decipher the meaning of certain words and phrases.

Stage 2: Early Production (6 months to 1 year)

At this stage, the student’s mouth opens, and they begin to speak. They use short words, but the emphasis is still on listening. The student will make frequent mistakes as they learn new vocabulary and absorb new words and phrases like a sponge. This is the stage just before a person begins to hold short conversations.

Stage 3: Speech Emergence (1-3 years)

The student’s speech gets easier at this point. You might know up to 3,000 words during Speech Emergence. You will be able to form longer sentences and hold longer conversations, but you will still have to rely on context and cues from other people.

Stage 4: Intermediate Fluency (3-5 years)

During this crucial stage, students usually have a vocabulary of up to 6,000 words and can communicate well in writing. This is when they start thinking in the language, which helps them gain more proficiency.

Stage 5: Advance Fluency (5-7 years)

Students can speak fluently and adapt to academic settings with occasional errors. The student may still have an accent at this stage, but it is not significant enough to interfere when speaking or understanding others’ speech. 

At this stage, they have mastered communication of all kinds. They can communicate effectively across different social settings and genres. They understand the cultural differences between languages that formerly caused confusion and linguistic misunderstandings.

Speed Up Language Acquisition With the Pareto Principle

The Pareto principle states that 20% of the input will account for 80% of your results for any given task. It is true in many different fields, including language acquisition.

When you are learning a new language you should identify what the 20% is for the language you are learning. Dissecting the language, establishing clear goals, and following a learning plan are essential.

It’s important that you focus on the most important words and phrases that will enable you to begin speaking and conversing as soon as possible. Having conversations regularly is the only way to advance in learning a language. It makes sense to focus on what will get you there while ignoring the stuff that won’t.

Tim Ferriss Language Learning Hack

Tim Ferris, a personal development blogger, uses the 80/20 rule a lot, even when learning languages. He has quite a few posts that offer various language-learning hacks.

In one of the posts, he suggests using the Pareto principle to identify the most important words and phrases you will need to know to begin speaking the target language and learn those. By understanding common words and phrases you can become fluent enough to hold a conversation in just a few months. 

To master the language could take many years. Why focus on the things that aren’t as common and delay the amount of time it takes for you to begin speaking it fluently? If you focus on the wrong thing, you will see diminishing returns.

Learn The 100 Most Commonly Spoken Words First

Tim suggests that you begin by identifying the 100 most frequently spoken words in your target language. 

(He also points out that the most commonly spoken words are much different than the most commonly written words, so be careful here.)

He has a list of the 100 most common English words (both written and spoken) and says that they will be similar in some popular languages.

Interestingly, the first 25 words (on the 100 Most Common Written Words in English list) make up about 1/3rd of all printed material in English. He says that the first 300 words account for 65% of all material written in English.

I hope you are getting the point. These numbers are staggering. If a person learns these 300 words (in English) they will be able to read 65% of the material out there. Out of the thousands of words in the English language, learning these 300 words first would benefit a person more than learning 3,000 words that aren’t used often. The same applies to foreign languages.

Even though there is a difference between written vs. spoken words, the point is the same: If you are going to learn a language, you should learn the most commonly used words and phrases while avoiding the less commonly used words.

He describes how it makes sense to learn more advanced words when broken down into subject matter.

Learn the 65% to 75% most commonly used words and avoid words that aren’t used often.

5 Tips To Speed Up Language Learning

In the past ten years, neuroscience, learning psychology, and access to information have come a long way. Today’s learners have access to more information than ever before, and much of it is free. 

Here are a few tips and resources to help you on your journey towards learning a second language.

#1 Learn the Most Commonly Used 500 to 1000 Words First

As explained above in the Tim Ferriss example, it’s important to use the Pareto Principle and learn the most frequently used words. You can find out what the most commonly spoken words are with a simple Google search. They have lists available for the most popular languages.

If you are learning a less common language, you may have to ask some native speakers or analyze the number of re-occurring words you hear being spoken in movies or Youtube videos.

Here are a few:

#2 Immerse Yourself in the Language & Culture

One of the best ways to learn a new language is by immersing yourself in it. This includes reading books, watching movies and TV shows, listening to music–essentially consuming everything you can in the language. 

Make it your first-choice medium for entertainment and self-learning. It may sound exhausting at first but it will get easier as you begin to pick up the language.

Learning a new language can be daunting, but if you immerse yourself in the culture and pick up on things naturally, your brain is more likely to make the right associations required for language acquisition. 

For example, an English speaker looking into learning Spanish or Italian; should watch movies with subtitles from those regions of the world and listen to that region’s music.

It may seem counterintuitive at first glance–learning through immersion? But it has been proven time after time again by experts like Krashen and Cummins

A language isn’t learned. It’s acquired. Immersing yourself in the language and culture you want to learn is essential.

#3 Learn Phrases & Not Just Words

Developing associations between words is an essential aspect of learning a foreign language. Don’t just learn individual vocabulary, but also try to group the common phrases that you hear being used in context. 

This will help your brain link one word with another when mentioned as part of these larger concepts and ultimately make it easier for you to remember them.

For example, in the following sentence, guess which word will come next:

On my 30’th birthday, my friends threw me a surprise Birthday ________.

The answer should not shock you: party.

It works the same way in a foreign language. You could take the word “Birthday” and come up with lots of other words that are frequently used together with it:

  • Birthday Cake
  • Birthday Wish
  • Birthday Card
  • Birthday Gift
  • Birthday Clown

#4 Use Flashcards To Memorize New Words & Phrases

Let’s face it, learning to understand the language is only half the battle. But, before you can speak fluently enough to hold a conversation, there will be some rote memorization involved.

Flashcards, as simple as they may be, are a time-proven way to memorize and recall new information. So, once you make your list of the top 500-1000 most frequently used words, put them on flashcards.

Many companies sell pre-made flashcards for popular languages. If you are going to go this route, just make sure you are learning the frequently used words and not wasting time learning words that would be the equivalent of the English word: brummagem (I bet you didn’t know that was a word).

You can also download flashcard apps like Brainscape or Quizlet and practice on your phone.

#5 Do Zoom Calls With Native Speakers

Language is learned through conversation. It’s not just about memorizing words and grammar or understanding how to pronounce them correctly; you have to put what you’ve learned into practice!

The best way to learn a new language is by having conversations with people who speak the language. This will help you in many ways, especially when it comes to pronunciation. 

It’s important that you have someone that can correct you. It’s similar to learning a musical instrument, you may be able to get the right notes to play, but you will pick up bad habits that, if not corrected, will affect you down the road.

A friend or tutor who knows the language well will correct you when you are pronouncing something wrong.

Find a tutor or a friend that speaks the language you are learning. Set up regular Zoom or Skype calls where you can practice having conversations in the language.

If you don’t have a friend that speaks the language, then make a friend! There are many paid tutor services, but you can also find people to talk to for free.

There are many native speakers in the language you are learning that want to learn English just as much as you want to learn their language. With Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, TikTok, and 100’s other social sites, searching for a language-learning group shouldn’t be too hard.

Make a post, introduce yourself, and you’ll meet people who will be willing to help you learn their language for free (or in exchange for helping them). The best thing about this is you’ll make a new friend in the process.

Free Resources For Learning a New Language

Learning a new language is one of the best ways to broaden your horizons and develop an understanding of people from other cultures. Many resources exist online that can help you learn without having to pay anything at all.

Here are a few of my favorite (free) resources:

  1. DuoLingo – Learn right on your phone
  2. The Foreign Services Institute Courses
  3. Busuu App
  4. My Language Exchange Community
  5. Interpals – Penpals & Community
  6. PolyGlot Club – Learn for free & make friends in their community

How long does it take to learn Spanish?

With daily practice, efficient learning methods, and a few “learning hacks,” an English speaker can become conversationally fluent in Spanish in a few as three months. Through traditional methods, you can expect to become conversationally fluent in 2-3 years.

Well, now you know how long it should take you to learn a new language. Is this your first time learning a second language? Let us know your experience in the comments!

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