How long to learn English?
How long to learn English? Let’s make things clear right away: you never stop learning a language : there will always be new words and expressions to learn.
English is no exception. On the one hand, because we don’t know everything and, on the other hand, because, even if we knew everything, new expressions appear all the time. (If you enjoy doing English, that’s good news, you have an endless source of fun and novelty!)
So, let’s reframe the question a bit:
How long does it take to learn to speak English properly?
For example, how long does it take to reach a sufficient level to understand everything during a telephone conversation? Or, to watch a film in original version without subtitles and understand as well as in French? How long to reach each European level?
Count in hours rather than years
You may have been learning English for ” years ” but this is not a fair estimate of your level of English . Doing 10 years of English at school without really speaking it doesn’t count.
Let’s take an anecdote. It’s the same if you’re learning the guitar: if you bought the instrument 5 years ago but it’s been sleeping in a closet for 4 years, it would be unfair to say that you’ve been learning the guitar for 5 years!
A much more accurate estimate of our progress in English is therefore to count in hours .
That’s good, that’s also what serious studies on the subject are doing. Before talking about adults, keep in mind that a child takes between 12,000 and 15,000 hours to learn his native language [source: Diane Larsen-Freeman (1991)]. This is something to keep in mind when you find the numbers below to be high.
US estimates (FSI)
The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is a branch of the United States Department of State renowned for its teaching of modern languages. If a diplomat has to learn a language following a job change, it is at the FSI that he will go to train. If James Bond were American, this is probably where he would go to train (or, if not, at the Defense Language Institute , the military equivalent of the FSI, where he might meet Jason Bourne!)
The FSI has existed since 1946 and trains more than 2,000 students a year, in more than sixty languages. The courses last between 8 and 44 weeks, depending on the level of the student and the objective. Classes are held as group lessons at an intensive pace (a minimum of 4 hours per day) and the student is expected to also work on their own time (a minimum of 3 hours per day). Yes, that’s a good 7 hours a day in total! The aim is to develop practical skills in the learner, since the language in question will be a working language.
What’s interesting about FSI, too, is that many of their students know more than one language (on average they know 2.3 languages). We are therefore faced with experienced people, which gives more weight to the statistics .
In a report, the FSI gives us the following estimates to reach a sufficient level to work in the language (level S-3 on the FSI scale, or C1 or even just B2 on the European CEFR system ):
Source: Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching , Frederick H. Jackson & Marsha A. Kaplan
Given the relationships between French and English and similar situations for pupils (neither of the two languages is written as it is pronounced; the two languages share a lot of vocabulary ), we can assume that it is necessary to the same time it takes for a Frenchman to learn English as it takes for an American to learn French, i.e. approximately 600 hours to speak operational English for work .
European estimates (ALTE)
But let’s not stop there. You all know, I hope, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ( CEFR ) or Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) , in English.
How long does it take to reach each of the CEFR levels in English?
Source: Association of Language Testers in Europe ( ALTE ) quoted in Introductory Guide to the CEFR for English Language Teachers , Cambridge University Press
The same table in text format, how long does it take to learn English:
|English level||Hours invested|
|C2||Approximately 1,000 to 1,200 hours|
|C1||Approximately 700 to 800 hours|
|B2||About 500 to 600 hours|
|B1||Approximately 350 to 400 hours|
|A2||Approximately 180 to 200 hours|
|A1||About 90 to 100 hours|
How long to learn English? (in hours)
The values given in the table are cumulative: if you are at level B2 in English , it would take you between 100 and 300 hours to reach level C1 . Guided Learning Hours means time spent in class or doing homework.
If you were wondering how many hours of lessons it takes to learn English, you finally have the answer!
In other words, according to these estimates: if you started from scratch, it would take you between 1,000 and 1,200 hours to master C2 English .
? To find out what you are able to do at each level, follow the links in the English Level column of the table.
What gets measured gets managed. (Peter Drucker)
(What gets measured gets managed.)
I firmly believe that keeping a log of our activities allows us to improve. This allows you to take a step back. A good way to start is to measure what you do. I write down what I have been doing in Russian and Hungarian since 2013 and I was able to estimate what I had done before that date.
Here are my estimates in number of hours accumulated since I started these languages (as of January 1, 2015):
|Language||Estimated level||Hours invested||FSI/ CEFR estimate|
|Hungarian||B1 (en route to B2)||646 hours||700-800 hours (B1)|
|Russian||A2 (on hold)||356 hours||360-400 hours (A2)|
How long to learn a language?
If we look at the FSI estimates, we can see that it takes about twice as long to learn Hungarian or Russian as it does to learn English or French. And if we now double the CEFR estimates for English, that means 700-800 hours to be B1 in Hungarian or 360-400 hours to be A2 in Russian… So maybe I’m a little bit below average in number of hours but not by an order of magnitude either. It would take official testing to confirm. But, in sum, my experience agrees with the estimates of both FSI and ALTE ; estimates are reliable.
Do you want to estimate your own level on the CEFR scale , to know how long it takes you to reach this or that level and to know on which points to work? Use this document: Self-assessment-checklist.pdf .
Hold over time
All these estimates may seem daunting! Who wants to embark on a 1000 hour adventure? Who is convinced to be able to hold out so long before becoming discouraged? At a time when everything seems to be going too fast and our ability to concentrate is increasingly reduced, it seems impossible.
The good news is that you don’t need to be fluent in English to start enjoying it!
I practiced English for years in writing before being able to discuss live with natives . During this period, I was able to learn to create websites, to use Photoshop, to modify video games or to read my first books in English . In short, full enriching activities in themselves! I knew my English wasn’t perfect but I also knew I could do things with it. What’s more, I couldn’t have done all this in French (the information I needed was not available in the language of Molière).
If I cite the example of Hungarian, with an A1 – A2 level , I was able to meet dozens of people and experience unforgettable adventures. This quickly allowed me to do everything in Hungarian, with difficulty ( very difficult even), certainly, but also in a totally exciting and passionate way. It gave me memories that will last a lifetime and led me three years later to settle in the country — something I didn’t know then and never would have happened if I had been too ashamed of my level to act and speak the language!
One of the conclusions of the FSI is that:
There is no substitute for simply spending time using the language.
(There is no substitute for simply spending time practicing the language.)
In any case, you will have to spend time practicing English if you want to have results. Does it take 600 hours to be able to work in English? Does it take 1000 hours to master English? Less ? More ? The question is not that important.
In any case, you will have to spend time there and, on this point, people who love without counting have an advantage. “When you love, you don’t count”.
Accept the time investment that this represents. This will help you work in a relaxed way and stop feeling guilty. You leave school without mastering the language of Shakespeare as you would like? Nothing out of the ordinary. It’s not your fault. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just like that. Good things take time.
Once you agree to spend a lot of time doing English , it is also easier to choose how you invest your time.
Do you want to :
- Spending your time in a classroom?
- Spend your time reading ?
- Spend your time chatting ?
- Spend your time watching TV series ?
…in any case, you are right. The more you do something, the stronger you become and can do it easily. The BIGGEST MISTAKE you can make in English is not making it.
How to learn faster?
The estimates we saw above are good benchmarks. They come from experienced organizations. The numbers seem high but it is always best to take conservative estimates . This avoids disappointment and helps us to organize ourselves.
That being said, can we go faster?
The risk here is to spend your time looking for the magic formula, the trick, the product or the “hack” that would allow us to learn in the blink of an eye, while the rest of the world is struggling. This is an attractive but fallacious idea. You know what?… I’ve already wasted too much time myself looking for this silver bullet and it’s a big mistake! If there was a trick to mastering English in 5 minutes a day, it would be famous enough because everyone would have been talking about it for a long time.
In short: time spent looking for the magic recipe is time wasted not practicing.
That being said…
Are there methods (which are not magic) and which allow you to learn English faster than the others? Simply smarter, or better organized?
For example, to reach an A1 level in 90 hours rather than 100 (10% of time saved) or C2 in 1,000 hours rather than 1,200 hours (16% of time saved)? It will take more time to study the subject but here are some serious leads:
- Learn to learn . People who know how to learn have an advantage. Learn how to break down a complicated subject into simpler and more digestible sub-parts ( chunking or fragmentation ). Learn how your memory works to memorize better .
- Certain technology . The effectiveness of spaced repetition systems has been proven for a long time but is still underexploited. The ability to be able to take our tools and our content everywhere with us is also a big plus, since it allows us to practice more, more frequently.
- Phonetics , in particular the International Phonetic Alphabet . English is a language that is not written as it is pronounced, the text misleads us. How can we hope to memorize sounds that we cannot distinguish? Knowing the English phonetic alphabet and small basics of phonetics allows you to learn to distinguish the spoken word and to speak clearly.
- Promote oral English . English is a living language; learning from text alone is counterproductive. Working on the oral, even if it means abandoning the text for a while, is a precious weapon and there is no reason to wait for a C1 / C2 level or university to get started.