According to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, it would take the average English-speaking person 2,200 class hours to be able to speak Mandarin at a semi-professional level. If you do the math, that works out to more than five years, assuming you’re studying for one hour per day, which is what most busy people can reasonably afford. But what if you don’t need to learn Mandarin for business? What if you’re just visiting China for fun? How many hours does it take to learn a language for you, personally, and not a theoretical businessman?
There’s no one-size-fits-all rubric for everyone, but the amount of time it’ll take you to reach your language goal will vary drastically depending on why you’re learning it in the first place. And no, not everyone needs to spend years studying in order to get from point A to point B.
Here are some questions and guidelines to help you figure out how much time you should realistically budget.
Make Sure You Take This Into Account
It’s a given that not everybody learns at the same pace. But in addition to taking your own learning speed into account, it’s also important to consider the following:
- How similar or dissimilar your learning language is to your native tongue
- How experienced you are with learning languages in general
- How you’re learning (In a classroom? Independently? Through total immersion?)
- Why you’re learning
This final consideration is pretty important, because not everybody needs to achieve the same level of fluency.
How Many Hours Does It Take To Learn A Language?
With all that said and done, what’s the ballpark figure you’ll be looking at? Here are a few estimates to help you budget your time:
Just the basics, ma’am
If you’re going somewhere on vacation and are mainly concerned with mastering simple interactions in order to a) get around and b) not feel like a jerk for only knowing English, the official Babbel claim is that you can get there in about three weeks (and we wouldn’t be telling you that unless we tried it ourselves).
This will require a small daily commitment from you (meaning at least one 15 minute lesson per day for 22 days). But you can actually learn a surprising amount in that time: vocabulary for 22 relevant topics, basic grammar, pronunciation and dialogue skills, to name a few.
Make new friends abroad
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is a commonly used rubric for language proficiency. According to the CEFR scale, three weeks of study with Babbel should get you to an A1 level (the most rudimentary one).
If you’re a little more committed than that and would like to be able to use the language fairly conversationally — not well enough to defuse a global nuclear crisis necessarily, but well enough to make friends in your new language — then you’ll probably want to get to at least an A2, if not B1, level.
By one estimate, it takes about 200 learning hours to progress from one CEFR level to the other. To reach an A2 level, you’ll need to put in about 180 to 200 hours; for B1, about 350 to 400 total. Mind you, these numbers are specifically geared toward the Cambridge English exam, but English actually happens to be a very difficult language to learn for non-native speakers, so you might need less time if you’re an English speaker studying, say, Italian.
Good enough for bragging rights
If you fancy yourself a bit of a budding polyglot, then you’ll probably be aiming for at least a B2 level of fluency: “Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.”
For an English student studying for the Cambridge English exam, this should take about 500 to 600 hours of study.
Good enough for the resume
If you’re studying for professional reasons, you’ll probably want to reach what the Foreign Service Institute deems “professional working proficiency.” These timeframes are longer because they’re geared toward diplomats who will need to have the aptitude to discuss complex (and important) matters.
But if you’re not a diplomat and you’re still hoping to put your language skills on your resume, then you’ll probably want to feel comfortable holding your own in slightly more nuanced situations as well.
If you’re studying for professional reasons (or you just have really high standards for how fluent you’d like to be), these guidelines should give you a fairly good idea. Category I languages like Spanish, French and Danish are easiest for an English speaker to learn, and they will require about 600 to 750 hours of study to master. Category IV languages like Mandarin and Japanese are the most difficult, requiring 2,200 hours for relative fluency.