I remember well that when I was learning my first language (French) I was constantly asking myself and everyone around me this very question. I would spend a lot of time googling things on the internet, or by annoying Luca Lampariello or Steve Kaufmann with emails. It’s strange, really, that there is such a burning desire among learners to have this question answered, when really this question can’t be answered (even by the most seasoned polyglot) with any certainty whatsoever.
I received this email a couple of days ago:
I watched your French video on Youtube and was really inspired. I’m also a LLB/BA student, and I’m considering picking up French next year. It’s such a beautiful language and I’d love to speak it fluently one day.
Do you think at 21 years of age, I can attain a fluent level of French if I start learning now? How long do you think it will take and what learning methods do you recommend.
So, why can’t this question be answered? Well, anyone can give you an estimate fact or figure, but in reality it can’t be answered accurately because the rate you get fluent in a language is entirely contingent on:
- Your motivation. The more motivated you are to learn a language, and your ability to maintain that motivation and not lose interest is the single most influential thing on the success you will have. Exposure alone, in the form of classes or from being in-country, is not enough to learn a language beyond the basics. This is evident from countries like France, where the kids learn English from a young age, yet who after 10 years of study have little more than a feeble grasp of the language.
- The time you invest. In all honesty, it takes a lot of time in terms of raw hours in order to learn a language to fluency. It gets easier and faster the more languages you learn (Steve Kaufmann recently learnt Romanian in a couple of months), but your first one will take longer than the rest. The good news is that I believe that the time spent learning langauges provides a fairly observable return on investment, meaning that the more time you put it, the more you will notice yourself improving. I believe that as long as you reach a ‘threshold’ minimum amount of time per week, then fluency is an inevitable result (ideally you should study every day, though). There is a cause-and-effect relationship between the time you spend and the closer you get to fluency, if that makes sense. The extra silver lining is that it really is an amazing experience learning your first language – also, I truly believe it brings you a huge increase in cognitive power. The extra competitiveness in the job market it gives you is only a secondary benefit to me. I plan to learn languages long into my old age – I think it could be the secret to staying lucid.
- Frequency of study – this is kind of related to point No.2, but it is important enough to have its own point! The frequency in which you study is extremely important to your success. One hour a day is ideal (and hey, if you want to do more, do more!), but one hour a day is better than 7 or even 10 hours once a week. Language learning is an organic and natural process that humans are inherently good at, but your brain needs constant exposure in order to familiarise itself with a new language.
Also, I think that listening is the single most beneficial thing you can do for your language learning. If you don’t listen, you will never be able to understand the spoken language, and if you can’t do that, then how will you ever be able to speak with people? I spend 90% of my language learning time listening. I try to listen for an hour a day, during my dead time.
Linked to your motivation is your confidence and belief if your actual ability to learn a language. This is what many people have the most trouble with. When you’ve never successfully learnt a language before, it’s hard to imagine yourself successfully doing it. Part of this stems from not knowing exactly how much information is needed to be learnt before you are ‘fluent’.
To address this problem, what I suggest to all you budding language learners out there is this: try to adopt a ‘fake it until you make it’ mentality with your language learning, and just believe in yourself that you will succeed; and to just learn a love and appreciation for the actual language learning process itself, regardless or not of you are becoming fluent or even progressing. Both these things are essential if you have the problem I just outlined. Confidence you will succeed is essential. Also, in contrast to the confidence needed to pick up girls, etc., all you have to lose here is that you don’t end up becoming fluent (which I believe is only possible if you simply give up and stop studying). Also, a love of learning about the how another language works, and of the actual activities you do in your language learning routine, is equally essential to your success. If you don’t enjoy your language learning workout, I can’t see you sticking at it long enough to get fluent.
Okay, okay. I promise to study. How long will it take?
I think that if you put in an hour a day, then in a year your would be very comfortable with the language, and well on the road to fluency. I would say you would be conversationally fluent. Then, you could spend a month or so in France, and you would certainly be fluent. Without going to France, I think you could be absolutely fluent in 2 years. That is a conservative estimate!
However, like I said, it all comes down to the individual language learner, and to your experience learning languages. For example, due to the fact that I’m fairly comfortable with my methods by this stage, and due to my knowledge of French and Spanish, I am fairly confident that I could become fluent in Italian in about 3 months. In fact, I plan on testing that theory eventually (after I’m done with Chinese).
In terms of age and language learning – age does not really come into it to much until far later on in life. Some 50 year olds may struggle, but then again, I have a 60 year old in my class that manages fine! And look at Steve Kaufmann, he must be nearly 70 by now, and he is still learning languages at an extremely rapid pace. Certainly 21 is not too old to start learning a language!
Hope you guys enjoyed the post!