Are schools still relevant in teaching us foreign languages in the 21st century? Let's find out together.
English is the most international language on the globe. If you are a native English speaker chances are, you can get along quite comfortably in most western countries without learning a word in another language. In Europe especially, with enough luck, someone out there may know enough English to initiate and sustain basic communication situations.
But of course, for various other reason either personal, cultural or work-related, you will find yourself in need of learning a foreign language. The next natural question after deciding to learn a new language is: how many hours does it take to learn a foreign language and achieve fluency?
It depends a lot on how motivated you are and how much time you have at your disposal for such an endeavor. Depending on these two factors the time spent learning a new language vary greatly.
Interagency Language Roundtable scale or the IRL scale
It is grading scale used by the US government to scale employees and diplomats working for the FSI (Foreign Service Institute).
You’ll find this scale to be the most accurate when it comes to native English speakers learning a foreign language.
|Level 0||No proficiency|
|Level 1||Elementary proficiency|
|Level 2||Limited working proficiency|
|Level 3||Professional working proficiency|
|Level 4||Full professional proficiency|
|Level 5||Native or bilingual proficiency|
Fluency is practically reached at level 3 (professional working proficiency), so basically, this level will be our main benchmark.
But first, we need to clarify a certain aspect of learning foreign languages as a native English speaker: some languages are more difficult to learn than others.
Why? Because English and some languages haven’t been in contact with one another for thousands of years and evolved in a totally different way.
Easiest language to learn for English speakers
The data presented below reflects a study held by FSI (Foreign Service Institute) of the US government. Again, this is probably the most accurate data regarding how much time takes for a native English speaker to become fluent in a particular new language.
The FSI has over 800 language learning courses in more than 70 languages with more than 70 years of experience in training US diplomats and foreign affairs employees.
Tier 1: Let’s start with the languages that are most closely related to English
|Afrikaans||about 575 hours or 23 weeks|
|Danish||about 575 hours or 23 weeks|
|Dutch||about 575 hours or 23 weeks|
|Norwegian||about 575 hours or 23 weeks|
|Swedish||about 575 hours or 23 weeks|
|French||about 600 hours or 24 weeks|
|Italian||about 600 hours or 24 weeks|
|Portuguese||about 600 hours or 24 weeks|
|Romanian||about 600 hours or 24 weeks|
|Spanish||about 600 hours or 24 weeks|
Even though FSI classifies all the above languages as having the same difficulty score and the same average time of learning (575-600 hours) it only makes sense that Germanic based languages like Danish or Dutch to be generally easier to learn compared with any of the Romance languages like Italian or Romanian.
But most of the languages above are highly easy to learn for very good reasons:
- use the same alphabet as English
- comparable stress and intonation patterns
- already share a number of vocabulary words
Tier 2: Similar to English
|German||750 hours or 30 weeks|
Even though German is the most Germanic language of them all, it doesn’t come very natural to learn for native English speakers.
The grammar is more complicated and difficult to understand, hence German gets a tier 2 difficulty score, but of course, there are other Germanic languages out there that are much harder to master, like Icelandic.
Tier 3: Languages that may have cultural and linguistic differences compared to English
|Indonesian||900 hours or 36 weeks|
|Malaysian||900 hours or 36 weeks|
|Swahili||900 hours or 36 weeks|
Tier 4: Languages that are profoundly different from English
|Polish||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
|Croatian||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
|Latvian||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
|Greek||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
|Turkish||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
|Icelandic||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
|Finnish||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
|Estonian||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
|Hungarian||1100 hours or 44 weeks|
Above are just a part of the European languages classified as tier 4 FSI. The list goes on with other languages from all over the world, like Mongolian, Nepali, Thai, Xhosa, Zulu or Hebrew. All of them taking about 1100 hours or 44 weeks to become fluent in.
Hardest language to learn for English speakers
All of the tier 5 languages are highly sophisticated and complex compared to English having an average learning curve up to 4 times the period it takes for the average English speaker to learn Dutch for example. So arm yourself with a lot of patience and plenty of determination.
Based on all the data and testimonies English speakers made over the years, the hardest language to learn award may go to Japanese due to thousands of characters you need to memorize while having three different writing varieties.
Tier 5: Extraordinary level of difficulty
|Arabic||2200 hours or 88 weeks|
|Chinese||2200 hours or 88 weeks|
|Japanese||2200 hours or 88 weeks|
|Korean||2200 hours or 88 weeks|
But don’t let all these statistics scare you! People around the world are learning and assimilating new languages every day. Besides, these are still human languages; it’s not like you need to decipher an alien dialect. All of the above are languages made up by humans, and with enough determination and willpower, you can learn any language on this list.
The above FSI statistics don’t include the help of modern language learning aids like apps on your smartphone can bring to the table. In theory, today you can learn a foreign language much faster.
Mondly is one of the most popular language learning apps out there, offering courses in 33 languages, including all languages from tier 5 category. With Mondly you can greatly reduce the total amount of time it takes to learn a new language by practicing daily whenever you feel like it because everything is right there, in your smartphone, at all times.