There are jobs that require you to speak different languages and do so well. Luckily, landing such a job goes in one package with a fully-fledged language training, like one for diplomats in the US Foreign Service Institute. Being experts in language learning, researchers from FSI know exactly how long it takes for their future foreign service officers to acquire a new language. Any language.
So how many hours to learn a language will make you fluent?
Let’s imagine for a minute that you’re about to become an american
spy diplomat and this is your first day in FSI.
Intro data: you are native English speaker and you have never touched that old [French / German/ Swahili ] dictionary on a dusty shelf.
Your future: you will reach what they call the “professional working proficiency”, or level 3 (out of 6) in the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable), in the record time. To be more clear, you will be quite at ease in speaking with natives without them being annoyed by your accent and grammatical blunders.
In how many hours will you get from there to here?
Different languages take different time to learn
The languages are different. But before we dive into the discussion of semantic and phonetic differences between Slavic and Romance languages, let’s note that we are interested only in how they are different from English.
And these differences are not as huge as you might think.
To illustrate this point FSI grouped world languages into 4 categories, according to their degree of “exoticism” from an English speaker standpoint. Here are they are:
Category I, or the easy-peasy
- Romance languages – Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian
North Germanic languages – Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Dutch
Category II, or the exotic blend
- Malay languages – Malay and Indonesian
- Haitian Creole
Category III, or where you find the most of languages
- Baltic and Slavic languages – Russian, Ukranian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian;
- Hellenic languages – Greek, Makedonian;
- Uralic languages – Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian;
- Semitic languages – Hebrew, Amharic;
- Indian languages – Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil, Sinhala
- Somali, Georgian, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Azerbajani, Turkmen, Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai… et cetera
P.S. This group includes many more languages that are not listed here. You can always check the full (but not exhaustive) list of category III languages on the Foreign Service Institute webpage.
Category IV, or “the red zone”
- Asian languages: Chinese, Japanese, Korean
Are you wondering how all this is even related to your plan of becoming a bilingual US diplomat? More than you think
How many hours to learn a language from each group are needed?
Now, since we figured out the categories, let’s jump on the findings of the study:
As a future diplomat, you will have to spend aproximately 600-700 hours in Federal Service Institute to reach working proficiency in any language from the first category.
To reach the same level for the category II, your time investment will have to increase by 1/3! It is to say, you will have devote at least 900 hours to that notorious German and the languages that happened to group with it.
Things get even worse with the category III. You will have to put in around 1100 hours before being able to hold an engaging conversation with a Russian KGB officer.
And I’m really sorry for you if you love Japanese and wonder how many hours separates you from learning it. Because as any language from category IV, it will suck 2200 hours of your life to reach, once again, the same fluency level.
Where did these differences come from?
When building this chart, FSI took into account different cultural and linguistic parameters of every given language.
How many hours you need to learn a language similar to English? Just 600 hours. The reason? English shares a significant part of its vocabulary with French, Spanish, Portuguese and other Romance languages. And it’s simply because all of them evolved from the same Vulgar Latin around 12-15 centuries ago.
Now, try to find any resemblance between English and Chinese? I, personally, struggle with this task but if you found some feel free to share it in the comments below!
Let’s go further.
Writing system is also important.
Notice that all languages from categories 1 and 2 use the same Latin script. This is not the case, however, if you deal with tongues from the third category. Slavic introduce Cyrillic script, Greek use Greek alphabet and Semitic languages use abugida.
In the fourth category, we depart from the usual writing system at all and come to what is called logography. Obviously, you will have a hard time learning the whole new writing system… and then developing your reading competence on the level when you can at least read posts in Chinese Twitter.
This is there that drastic gap of 1100 hours between 3rd and 4th category comes from.
How many hours a day do you have to study the language?
The total amount of hours needed to learn a language is very handy when you try to estimate how much time your task will really take.
But, hey, there are 24 hours in a day; does it mean that you can learn Spanish in 25 days?
Well, if you don’t need to sleep…
When publishing this study, FSI gave not only the total of hours but also the total of weeks needed to make you a fully bilingual servant of US Foreign Affairs system.
The main assumption of their Schoold of Language Studies was that you would study your target language for 25 hours a week. This comes to approximately 3,5 hours every day or (in case you want to keep your weekend monolingual) to 5 hours from Monday to Friday.
These are pretty severe conditions, n’est-ce pas?
However, take into account our tendecy to forget 60% of words you’ve just learned after just one hour – unless you use special strategies to memorize new vocabulary. Take into account our tendency to shift to our first language as we have hard time accessing information or explaning something serious. Take into account our natural tendency to procrastinate, after all!
You will come to the conclusion that you really need to make an effort and fully immerse yourself in a new language on regular basis.
Amazing 20/80: how many hours you need to learn the most spoken languages?
Now, let’s say you want to quickly learn a new language and become a happy bilingual individual. Having all the FSI data, what language does it makes more sense to learn?
According to Ethnologue, the category I miraculously includes 3 out of 10 most spoken languages around the world. Let me quickly refresh these data:
As you see, the second most spoken language is Chinese with almost a billion of native speakers and another 200 millions of those who learned it as a second language.
However, you will need to spend 2200 hours to reach a solid proficiency level.
The third the most popular language is Hindustani or Hindi/Urdu together. I wouldn’t count them together though, since their writing systems are completely different.
How many hours to learn a language from category II would you need? The solid 1100 hours.
Now let’s do a simple math.
Learn 3+ languages instead of just one within the same time
For the time needed to learn Chinese alone (2200h) you can learn 2 other languages from the category 3: for example, Hundustani and Russian (1100 hours each). You can also become fluent in 3 languages from category 1: Spanish, French and Portuguese. And you will still have about 400 hours to distribute! You could start learning a new language or improve your proficiency in these three. So, what do you choose: 3 languages or just one?
Moreover, with these three languages you will be able to communicate fluently in 70 countries and territories, while Chinese will open the doors in just 5.
Isn’t it a clear example of how the Pareto Low applies to language learning? With just 20% of effort you can achieve 80% of results. You can waste an enormous amount of time on learning one hard language or spend x4 less time on studying an easier one. But the one that would give you a freedom to travel around the world.
And only thing you need is to be smart about language learning.
Alina, I really appreciate the effort you put into creating this site. Linguistics fascinate me. You asked whether anyone knew of any cognate words between English and Chinese. There are a few eg. ‘momma- mama, papa- baba’. As I am sure you already know, phonetically ‘b’ and ‘p’ are interchangeable.
Thank you, Charles! Excellent points; “mama” and “papa” indeed tend to be quite universal, with some mild phonetic variation across languages.
Or try a mix and match approach. Study the greens alongside a red. You’ll get through three of one and one of the other in roughly the same time. That’s what I’ve been doing and have really loved. To have an easy alongside a hard language.
It would take me an infinite number of hours. I can’t even learn Spanish.