Fluency is the ultimate goal of studying a foreign language. Fluent speakers can express themselves with ease in any context. Fluent speakers can use their language skills in professional or service capacities. Fluent speakers don’t need a dictionary by their side 24/7. Once a learner has achieved fluency, operating in the language is far more enjoyable as anyone who’s been on both sides can attest. If you’re already studying a foreign language, thinking about getting started, or just plain curious, keep reading for what the experts have to say on how long it takes to become fluent.
How Long is Measured in Hours of Study
People often want to know how many months or years it will take them to achieve fluency, but both of these are the wrong unit of measure. There is nothing magical about the passage of time when it comes to language acquisition. What takes 6 months for one person may take 6 years for another depending on the weekly investment they make in the language. This is why hours of study is the correct unit of measure for estimating language mastery. If I told you it takes 700 hours to master Spanish, then you could accurately estimate the years and months it would take you to get there based on your average weekly investment. Another thing to take into account is the background of the student. A student highly proficient in their native language or with experience studying another foreign language will require less time to reach the same benchmark. For those with no experience or little natural language ability, the process of language acquisition is more time-consuming.
There is nothing magical about the passage of time when it comes to language acquisition. What takes 6 months for one person may take 6 years for another depending on the weekly investment they make in the language.
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), an organization of the US State Department, trains American diplomats in foreign languages so they can effectively serve US interests abroad. The FSI has published estimates based on 70+ years of experience of the average length of time it takes a new language student to achieve “professional working proficiency” (link). Professional working proficiency is based on the Interagency Language Roundtable Scale and takes into account both reading and spoken capabilities. Here is the complete description (link):
Professional working proficiency is the fourth level of five in the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale of language proficiency, formerly called the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) scale. This level is sometimes referred to as S-3 or Level 3. A person at this level is described as follows:
• able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics.
• can discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease.
• has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech.
• has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to grope for a word.
• has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker.
The FSI has divided languages into four categories of increasing difficulty with respect to the time it takes native English speakers to achieve professional working proficiency.
Category 1 Languages: ~600-750 Classroom Hours
Category 1 is for languages most similar to English. It includes Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Romanian, and Norwegian. According to FSI, the average native English speaker needs ~600-750 classroom hours of study to achieve professional working proficiency. With one hour every single day of the year, it would take a beginner about two years to become fluent.
Category 2 Languages: ~900 Classroom Hours
Category 2 is for languages more distant to English than Category 1. It includes German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, and Swahili. According to FSI, the average native English speaker needs ~900 classroom hours of study to achieve professional working proficiency. With one hour every single day of the year, it would take a beginner almost 2 and a half years to become fluent.
Category 3 Languages: ~1100 Classroom Hours
Category 3 is for “hard languages,” languages with significant linguistic/cultural differences from English. The extensive list consists of the following:
Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Czech, Dari, Estonian, Farsi, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Kazakh, Khmer, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mongolian, Nepali, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Singala, Slovak, Slovenian, Somalia, Tagalog, Takiki, Tamili, Telugu, Thai, Tibetan, Turkish, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, and Vietnamese.
According to FSI, the average native English speaker needs ~1100 classroom hours of study to achieve professional working proficiency. With one hour every single day of the year, it would take a beginner more than 3 years to become fluent.
Category 4 Languages: ~2200 Classroom Hours
Category 4 is reserved for “super-hard languages,” languages that are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers. It includes Arabic, Chinese-Cantonese, Chinese-Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. According to FSI, the average native English speaker needs ~2200 classroom hours of study to achieve professional working proficiency. With one hour every single day of the year, it would take a beginner more than 6 years to become fluent.
Learning a language is an art, not a science. No two languages and no two language learners are the same. Figures from the FSI provide a good estimate of the time it takes serious students to achieve working-level proficiency. Keep in mind that professional classroom instruction was assumed in the creation of these estimates. If you are self-studying, it may take you longer depending on your independent learning ability and the resources you have at your disposal.
Based on my experience with Spanish, Arabic, and Japanese I believe the FSI’s estimates are an accurate reference.