Published 17th January 2018

I know, I know. How long is a piece of string, right?

However, recent research is now able to provide us with a few answers to this question, which is helpful for us to answer our students when they ask us this frustrating question and helpful to our students who genuinely would like to know the answer.

So, how long does it take to learn a language?

In the case of natural acquisition babies receive at least 5,000 hours of input before they can speak a sentence, though this of course is related to their development as well, as they cannot be expected to speak before they are developmentally ready.

For foreign language learners, for those educated in a school in an English-speaking country (the UK or the US, to be exact) from the age of five, it can take approximately six years, regardless of how the learning takes place.

In the UK, migrant children in English primary schools attend classes with their local counterparts and are given extra language support. This results in these children attaining the same level of English as native speaking children by the time they are eleven. In the US, English language learners attend separate classes and join their native speaking counterparts when they have the same level of English, which is also at about age eleven.

As for language learners learning English in a non-English speaking country, it seems that it depends on your first language. Speakers of Germanic languages are more likely to reach a higher level of English and do so in quicker time than speakers of Romance languages.

Swedish learners can achieve level B2 after about 500 hours of classroom instruction. Students from the Netherlands, Slovenia and Estonia usually reach level B1 with the same amount of instruction. However, speakers of any of the Romance languages don’t do nearly as well. Spanish speakers need about 800 hours of instruction to get to B2, French speakers just less than 800 and Portuguese learners just under 600.

How is this helpful for our learners?

Well, though it can be demotivating for those of our learners who have a longer road to travel (our learners who speak a Romance language), it nevertheless is still comforting to be able to attach a number to the learning process. Once our learners can visualise an end to their learning and a time when they will be able to speak English fluently, their motivation levels will increase. They will realise exactly what they need to do and the amount of time they need to dedicate to their learning in order to get where they want to go.

You should also remind them, though, that each learner is different and these figures are averages. If they give themselves enough exposure to the language, they will find their level of English improving.