How long does it take to learn a language?

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Ben Knight is Director of ELT Research here at Cambridge, managing a team of researchers working on a variety of projects to help us develop courses and materials.  In this article, Ben discusses some of the research the team have been conducting around the time it takes to learn a language, and how we can help learners progress quicker.

We know that learning a language takes a lot of effort over quite a long time.  But how long should it take?  Should I expect to be fluent after three years of study, for example?  How many hours do I need to study a day to get fluent in a year?

There’s no single answer to this question – it depends very much on what your target is, what your motivation and opportunities are, and lots of other background factors.

But we’re often asked by educational institutions and ministries around the world to advise them on how much time students need to make progress in their English.  We’ve summarised a lot of our research and advice in this paper: how long does it take to learn a foreign language?

How long does it take to learn a foreign language? ELT paper

We’ve set out to capture what affects the number of hours you need to learn English.  This provides a useful starting point for thinking about how you can improve the rate at which your students learn.  For example, students with clear learning objectives – who can say what they want to be able to do in the language they are learning – tend to be more focused in their learning activities and make faster progress.

How can you help your students to describe what they want to be able to do in English?

We give some examples of hours needed for different profiles of learner – for example, for adults, teenagers and primary-level children, and with different levels of motivation or ‘language distance’ from English.

For motivated adult learners, they typically need between 100 and 200 hours of guided learning to get from one CEFR level to the next.  As you go up the levels, you need more hours to get to the next one.  To get from A1 to A2, it typically requires 100-150 hours of guided learning, but it can take 180-260 hours to get from B1 to B2.

When we talk about guided learning hours, we mean learning in a classroom or as part of a programme – i.e. including homework and other language learning activities which have been designed to improve your language skills.  As your level increases, it becomes easier to make use of language learning opportunities outside the classroom – on-line communication or engaging with speakers of that language.  So, you don’t necessarily need more classroom hours as you move up the CEFR scale.

Why do we have higher numbers of hours for primary school students?   We know that young children in immersive contexts learn the language very quickly.  The examples in this paper, however, are more about children learning English in countries where English is not used outside the classroom.

A general pattern in our findings is that it takes more hours to progress than most Ministries of Education expect.  It can be difficult to provide more classroom hours and so educationalists are thinking more about how they can support learner autonomy.  They are looking at how learners can make more of language learning opportunities outside the classroom.

Browse our collection of research papers in ELT: commissioned and collated by our research team, written by ELT specialists in the field.

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