How long does it take to learn a language?

By Dr. Katharine B. Nielson –

Another question I get asked all the time is how long it takes to learn a language. And my answer–which no one likes–is “it depends.” But there are no easy answers to this question, because it really does depend on so many different things, from how much time you have to how old you are, and how you’re planning to learn the language to why you are learning it in the first place. Furthermore, there has been very little published about how long it takes people to learn the language they need to accomplish their goals, so most concrete answers are actually essentially a wild guess.

I thought about that this morning when I stumbled on Andrew London’s hilariously titled techradar article, “Duolingo made me 26% fluent in idiot.” I’ve previously pointed out that Duolingo, a game-like mobile application purportedly designed to teach language is unlikely to work, given its reliance on a teaching methodology that’s been out of favor since the middle ages.

But I thought I would use London’s article to hammer home another point–just because people want to know how long it will take to learn a language doesn’t mean you should make up a fake metric to tell them. What does 26% fluent mean? Who knows?

London will tell you “It’s not that I didn’t know any Spanish, I just didn’t know any useful Spanish, or how to apply the Spanish I did know. Our taxi driver couldn’t have cared less that my wife cooks soup (Mi esposa cocina la sopa) or that turtles read books (Las tortugas leen los libros).”

What’s going to happen in the other 74% of his path to fluency? Will he actually be able to talk to people about something other than turtles or soup? Does that happen at 54% fluent? This meaningless statistic probably makes learners feel like they are making progress towards learning Spanish, but it doesn’t actually say anything. What we need is for language learners to understand that mastering a language “completely” takes years of hard work, and it is most likely out of their reach. Instead, they should have clear goals for what they want to use the language to do and assess their progress towards meeting those goals.

Language development can be measured in any number of ways, from traditional proficiency tests that evaluate learners’ progress towards mastering reading, writing, listening, or speaking skills to more innovative approaches to ongoing assessment. The language testing landscape is already crowded with standardized tests using different scales and underlying metrics. Instead of adding even more noise with incomprehensible fluency percentages, we should be tracking what learners are trying to do and how long it’s taking them to get there. Only that will eventually help us give a clear, honest answer to the perpetual “how long does it take” question.

Dr. Katharine B. Nielson, PhD, is Voxy’s Chief Education Officer.