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How long does it take to learn a new language?

language learning

Only a few years ago, foreign language proficiency was only one of the advantages a potential employer looked for. Nowadays, it is becoming more and more useful in everyday life, while in professional life it is simply essential. Are you wondering how long it takes to learn a new language, and how many languages you can master? Read on, and we’ll happily tell you how to learn more effectively and, as a result, speed up the learning process.

How long it takes to learn a foreign language, just like learning anything else, depends on individual predispositions. The theory of universal grammar says, however, that each of us is equipped with inborn linguistic competence, so a properly functioning person is able to easily learn his or her mother tongue, and at the same time learn any other language, too. According to Noam Chomsky, every person’s mind is equipped with a special grammar program, which enables them to absorb language. However, there are a number of correlations that affect the speed of learning foreign languages – you will learn more about this further on.

How to prepare for learning a new language

When preparing to learn a new language, it is worth not only getting the appropriate manuals or apps, such as SuperMemo, but also to start functioning within a given language. How do you do it? There are many ways.

Just listening to music or watching movies in the target language affects the brain, which unconsciously assimilates foreign words or phrases. You can also try watching movies in that language without a lector, read familiar books, look for foreign blogs or newspapers. The more time you spend with a language, no matter in what way, the faster you will be able to master it.

The ability to think analytically is very useful when learning a foreign language. It will make it much easier for you to learn grammar, and in the future, in the ensuing stages of study, it will allow you to notice similar structures, which is extremely helpful in mastering further languages.

There are many ways to practice the analytical thinking skills that are not directly related to language learning but which have a significant impact on the ease with which languages are learnt. These include, for example:

  • games and logical puzzles,
  • strategy games,
  • learning how to program.

Try it, and see how it will improve your ability to acquire new material.

Is it possible to learn a new language on your own?

If you want to learn a new language, you can, of course, invest in individual or group language courses with a teacher, but if you learn a foreign language on your own, you can also achieve very good results. The way in which you will be able to acquire knowledge in the most convenient way is entirely up to you. Are you a visual/auditory/kinesthetic learner, or maybe, like many people, you learn best while interacting with others? Only you know how to learn foreign languages quickly, and how to make it as effective as possible.

Self-organisation and access to quality materials are essential during self study. This kind of learning requires regularity and frequent repetition, so even if you have very little free time, try to find at least 20 minutes a day to study. Try not to postpone the repetition of the material, because having an everyday routine is extremely important.

SuperMemo comes to the rescue in the organisation of this process. According to SuperMemo’s research, the most effective way is to refresh the material just before it is forgotten. The later the repetition takes place, the better, as long as we still remember it. SuperMemo sets the repetition of this information individually, for the day when the chance of remembering it decreases to 90%. The exercises done using the dedicated software return to the user at the ideal moment, the intervals between repetitions are gradually extended and the learning effects are consolidated. Thanks to the SuperMemo application, you can spend every free moment on learning a language, regardless of where you are. If you develop appropriate habits, it will be much easier for you to remember vocabulary or grammar for good.

Do you need talent to learn languages?

How long it takes to learn a foreign language depends on individual language predispositions. Some people, after only six months abroad, can speak fluent English, Spanish or indeed any other language. For this reason, people who have been unable to master a foreign language after a long time say that they lack talent – is that so? With the increasing knowledge of our brain’s structures and of learning processes, we can see that the ability to learn a language can be developed in the individual at any time, regardless of innate abilities.

Research by researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, under the direction of neurologist Professor Patrick Wong, has shown that some part of the ability to learn languages may depend on a small brain structure called the Heschl gyrus. This area of the cerebral cortex is close to the temples and represents only 0.2% of total brain mass – the larger it is, though, the easier it is for a person to remember new words. However, according to Professor Wong, biological conditions are not the whole story, because all the areas of the brain that are responsible for language skills are extremely flexible and can be easily trained in such a way that they can be significantly developed and even physically enlarged.

How much time do you need to invest in learning a foreign language?

Do you ask yourself how polyglots are able to speak a dozen or so languages fluently? What are their learning strategies?

Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann, author of the book “The Linguist: A personal guide to language learning”, only started learning foreign languages in high school, and yet he is now fluent in several. As he recalls, what helped him to learn was completely immersing himself in the language. According to him, the best way to learn is to listen to the same, well-known material many times over. Kaufmann recommends regular conversations with native speakers, reading foreign books and newspapers, watching movies with subtitles and using flashcards. He points out that to learn a new language dynamically, it is worth broadening your vocabulary, using the language, listening and reading in whenever possible. In other words, he perceives language learning as a continuous process and an exciting experience, and not as a duty that is performed at a defined time. Kaufmann puts great emphasis on making the texts or films selected genuinely interesting, then it is much easier to assimilate and remember the material for good.

Benny Lewis

Benny Lewis knows 12 foreign languages, 7 of them fluently. Lewis described his concept of language learning in his book “Fluent in 3 months”. He claims that learning a language in 3 months is definitely possible, assuming we spend several hours a day on it – 7 days a week, with 2 hours a day being the absolute minimum. Benny Lewis considers the learning approach as key to success. This Irish blogger and polyglot believes that effective learning is only possible if we enjoy the learning process itself. It is necessary to change our priorities and develop a passion for learning.

In Lewis’s opinion, the key to mastering a foreign language is to define a specific plan that we want to achieve, as well as a basic assumption as to how much time will be needed to achieve it. The specific goal can be the level of proficiency we want to achieve in a given period of time. As Lewis says, if your goal is to master the language at a communicative level, if you are able to devote a lot of free time to it, and have a good native speaker and relevant sources at hand, a couple of months should be enough to be successful and reach at least an intermediate level.

Which foreign languages are easy to learn and which ones require more time?

At the very beginning, it is worth mentioning that there is no such thing objectively as the easiest language to learn. Linguists confirm that there is no single universal scale, from the simplest to the most complicated, and that the level of difficulty can be discussed on many different scales. In a nutshell, the least time is needed to learn a foreign language from a similar language group – which can be illustrated using the example of Polish.

Difficulty level I – languages from the same language group:

  • Kashubian, Silesian,
  • Slovak, Czech,
  • Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Macedonian, Serbian, Slovenian, Russian, Ukrainian.

Difficulty level II – languages from the group of Indo-European languages:

  • high cultural similarity, similar vocabulary: Lithuanian, Latvian, Danish, Dutch, English, Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish, African, Dutch, German, Yiddish, French, Galician, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Romanian, Italian,
  • less culturally similar, different alphabet: Albanian, Armenian, Bengali, Greek, Hindi, Nepali, Pashtun, Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik), Sanskrit, Urdu.

Difficulty level III – languages from other language groups with a lower difficulty level:

  • Austronesian languages: Indonesian, Malaysian, Tagalog,
  • African languages: Swahili.

Difficulty level IV – languages from other language groups with higher difficulty level:

  • Semitic languages: Amharic, Hebrew,
  • Turkic languages: Azeri, Turkish, Mongolian, Kyrgyz, Uzbek,
  • Finno-Ugric languages: Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian,
  • Cartwel tongues: Georgian,
  • languages from different language groups in Asia: Korean, Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese,
  • languages from different language groups in Africa: xhosa, zulu.

Difficulty level V – languages with exceptional difficulty level:

  • Arabic,
  • Japanese.

Multilingualism – the concept of learning a third language

Multilingualism is already the norm, there are fewer and fewer people around the world who speak only one language. Our cognitive and communication skills are growing with each successive language, our vocabulary is expanding and our language awareness is growing. Multilingual people are better able to do several things at the same time. Learning foreign languages is like exercising muscles – the more often we use the brain structures responsible for speech, the faster they increase in volume, which makes learning easier. Anyone who already speaks several foreign languages can confirm that it takes less and less time to learn successive languages. Not only philologists, but also cognitivists confirm that learning a second language is usually much more challenging than learning a third one (the term “third language” is used to describe the one learned after the first foreign language). Many years of neuro-linguistic research have shown that all languages are somehow connected. The concept of learning a third language takes advantage of this dependence, and assumes the application of integrated language strategies during the learning process. One of the elements of third language teaching is, for example, to improve the learning of vocabulary through the use of internationalism.

So what is the secret to effectively learning a new language?

In fact, the whole secret comes down to two main principles, which are worth following if you want to learn a language quickly and effectively.

1. Make sure you are in constant contact with the language

Learn both actively and passively. Use all available sources. Listen to podcasts, watch movies with subtitles, translate lyrics, play games with original subtitles – in fact, you can integrate language learning into any everyday activity. Choose content you’re really interested in – the more you’re interested in a topic, the more you’ll be motivated to understand it. You can increase the effectiveness of learning by regular use of the language, whether with native speakers, or using professional applications such as SuperMemo, which will allow you to consolidate and systematise your knowledge.

2. Do not be afraid to make mistakes

As the old saying goes: “Practice makes perfect”. Making mistakes is natural and unavoidable when learning a new language. The key to communicating in a language is not so much the perfect knowledge of grammar, as breaking the barrier of silence (leaving one’s comfort zone). First, learn the most popular words and simple language constructions, then gradually expand your grammar and vocabulary. It is important to be systematic – if you want to remember the given material permanently, you have to memorise it regularly, and SuperMemo will take great care of setting the ideal moment for repetition. Be aware of the fact that the easiest way to learn grammar is in its natural context, namely in sentences, so do not be afraid to use language in speech or writing, even if you make a lot of mistakes at the beginning.