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April 4, 2019

How Long Does it Take to Learn Your Host Country’s Language?

An old proverb goes “to learn a new language is to get a new soul.” Learning a new language doesn’t just make it easier to interact with other speakers of that language, it exposes you to different ideas and ways of thinking that may not necessarily be commonplace among the speakers of your own first language.

Foreign workers, travelers, students, and others who find themselves staying outside their home country for extended periods will always find it beneficial to learn the languages and dialects of the areas where they will be living. Not only does it prevent any serious communications issues, but it can also easily open up avenues for new friendships and professional relationships that you may value for the rest of your life.

However, not all languages are as easy to learn as the next. Someone who speaks English as a first language, for example, will tend to find it easier to learn German than they would Russian or Tagalog. Some popular countries for expats and travelers such as China, Korea, and Japan are homes to languages most Anglophones would find exceptionally difficult.

Luckily, there is some data on which languages are easier to learn. If you’re having trouble deciding which country you’d like to work or study in long-term, this information can be crucial in helping you decide.

What does the Foreign Service Institute say?

The US State Department’s Foreign Service Institute is the primary training institute for American diplomats and other members of the American foreign affairs community. The FSI teaches over 70 languages and 170,000 enrollees a year, not just from the State Department, but also from hundreds of other government organizations. Over several decades, they have compiled a large body on data about which languages are the most difficult to learn, at least for a monolingual English-speaking American.

The Foreign Service Institute divides languages into the following categories:

  • Category I: 23-24 weeks (575-600 hours)
  • Category II: 30 weeks (750 hours)
  • Category III: 36 weeks (900 hours)
  • Category IV: 44 weeks (1100 hours)
  • Category V: 88 weeks (2200 hours)

Note that other linguists have their own opinions about which languages are “easy” or “difficult” to learn. The basis for the FSI’s categorizations is the similarity of the languages to English as well as their own experience with which languages Americans have problems with.

Factors that can speed up or slow down progress

The FSI categorizations assume that the learner is an adult monolingual English speaker. Almost 4 out of 5 Americans and Australians and about 2 out 3 Britons fall under this category.

However, this does not exactly ring true for the rest of the Anglosphere. Most English speakers around the world do in fact, learn English as a second or native language early in childhood, where language acquisition is fastest, giving them the upper hand when it comes to learning languages similar to the ones they grew up with. This means the FSI standards may not apply for multilingual learners who may be able to use their familiarity with more languages to their advantage.

As alluded to earlier, age also plays a critical factor. Children can learn naturally and easily without any formal teaching, and most children reach their peak of language-learning mastery before the age of seven. However, there is no reason an adult cannot achieve mastery of a new language as well.

Opinions differ on what exact mechanisms are at work, but it’s generally agreed language learners will learn much faster when they are immersed in the culture and language of their host country, compared to the clinical setting of a classroom.

It may well be due to an abundance of contextual, easy-to-see examples of the language being used in real life, compared to the clinical study in a classroom setting. There is also conjecture that constant exposure allows your brain to more easily make the necessary connections in patterns to allow language mastery.

Many linguists also emphasize the importance of actually talking in the language, which may give extroverted learners the advantage, though not all linguists agree with this.

How long does it take a monolingual English speaker to learn a foreign language?

Taking all those factors in mind, here’s how long the FSI estimates the average monolingual English speaker will take to master different languages.

* Asterisks denote a language that is harder than others in the same category.

Category I: 23-24 weeks / 575-600 hours

Languages closely related to English:

  • Afrikaans
  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • French
  • Italian
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

Category II: 30 weeks / 750 hours

Languages similar to English:

  • German

Category III: 36 weeks / 900 hours

Languages with linguistic differences from English:

  • Indonesian
  • Malaysian
  • Swahili

Category IV: 44 weeks / 1100 hours

Languages with significant linguistic differences from English:

  • Albanian
  • Amharic
  • Armenian
  • Azerbaijani
  • Bengali
  • Bosnian
  • Bulgarian
  • Burmese
  • Croatian
  • Czech
  • *Estonian
  • *Finnish
  • *Georgian
  • Greek
  • Hebrew
  • Hindi
  • *Hungarian
  • Icelandic
  • Khmer
  • Lao
  • Latvian
  • Lithuanian
  • Macedonian
  • *Mongolian
  • Nepali
  • Pashto
  • Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Serbian
  • Sinhala
  • Slovak
  • Slovenian
  • Tagalog
  • *Thai
  • Turkish
  • Ukrainian
  • Urdu
  • Uzbek
  • *Vietnamese
  • Xhosa
  • Zulu

Category V: 88 weeks /2200 hours

Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers:

  • Arabic
  • Cantonese
  • Mandarin
  • *Japanese
  • Korean

If you’re traveling abroad with the intent of learning the language of your host country, you’ll probably need to plan for the appropriate amount of time to get the results you desire. In any case, not everyone needs to be a master at the level of a foreign diplomat necessarily, though it’s still worth knowing how difficult a language might be to learn, regardless.

Whatever language you’re learning, where you end up going or how long you’re going to stay there, you’ll want international insurance coverage from an insurer like Now Health International. Learning a new language overseas is safer and easier when you’ve already got your health covered, after all!

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