One of the first questions a beginner language student asks is, “How long until I’m fluent?” With language learning websites offering 15-day marvels and polyglot friends boasting about being multilingual, it can be frustrating to make little progress. But what is realistic? How long does it take to learn English?
How long it takes to learn English depends on the learner’s age, current proficiency, desired level of fluency, and linguistic and educational background. If an adult beginner studies English full-time in a native English-speaking country, they can learn English fluently within a year.
Anyone can learn English, provided they invest time, effort, and other resources. How long it will take to become fluent depends on many factors, primarily motivation and willingness to learn. Let’s look at how long it takes to learn English and what factors influence this time.
How Long Will It Take To Learn English?
How long it will take to learn English depends on many factors, including your age, your current level of English proficiency, your educational background, your motivation, your resources, and your situation.
How Long Does It Take For A Child To Learn English?
How long a child takes to learn a language depends on the context, whether it is at home, in an immersive situation, or via language classes.
Scientific studies show that children between the ages of two and 12 years have neurophysical advantages that help them learn languages more quickly. Children’s brains are plastic and able to store information effectively, while their muscular development gives them an edge in pronunciation and intonation.
Children will acquire language apparently effortlessly and “naturally” in bilingual families and communities. Similarly, if a child is an immigrant to an English-speaking country and is immersed in the language by going to school and interacting with peers, they can be reasonably fluent within six months.
However, a child’s fluency doesn’t necessarily extend to academic language, which takes years to develop. Similarly, if a child is learning a second or foreign language at school, with a few classes per week, it will take closer to three to seven years to become fluent.
How Long Does It Take For An Adult To Learn English?
After puberty, teenagers and adults lose the neurophysical advantages that make language acquisition easier. It, therefore, takes much longer to learn a new language, depending on the context, time, and effort, from six months to several years.
Adults have advantages over children when learning languages: adults have cognitive maturity, educational experience, competence in other languages, and the ability to transfer skills and understand grammar patterns and language structures. Adults also have insight into their motivation for learning and preferred learning styles.
How Long It Takes An Adult To Learn English: The CEFR And ACTFL
One way of measuring how long it takes to learn English is to use the standardized levels of proficiency described in the Common European Framework for Languages (CEFR).
Note that the CEFR is not the only system to explain proficiency. For example, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) describes five proficiency levels: novice, intermediate, advanced, superior, and distinguished. These levels are indicated on the chart below as well.
|Level||Description Learners can:||Study Hours|
|A: Basic User/Novice|
|A1 (Breakthrough)||Introduce themselves.Ask for and give personal information (age, address, etc.).Communicate using fundamental structures.Use common, high-frequency phrases and expressions (greetings, requests, etc.).||80|
|A2 (Elementary)||Communicate about simple and routine tasks (please open this, etc.).Use simple terms, structures, and language to explain personal details, likes, and needs (I want, I am, I can, etc.).Communicate about local areas (school, work, shops).||180|
|B: Independent User/Intermediate-Advanced|
|B1 (Threshold– Intermediate)||Communicate simply and slowly with native speakers.Introduce simple elements of fluency to familiar topics. Understand the main ideas in their daily lives (work, school, family, etc.).Give reasons for their thoughts and plans (why I want this, why I want to go there, etc.).||350|
|B2 (Vantage–Upper Intermediate)||Understand more complex reading texts in their area of expertise.Interact with native speakers without significant problems.Write and interact on new and unfamiliar topics, offering opinions and values.||500|
|C: Proficient User/Superior-Distinguished|
|C1 (Operational Proficiency)||Recognize implicit and explicit meaning.Communicate effectively in work, learning, and social environments.Communicate fluently.||700|
|C2 (Mastery or Proficiency)||Communicate fluently or at a native level.Deal with complex language situations, interacting with speed and accuracy.Understand complex conversations and texts with ease.||1000|
The table shows that it will take 80 hours to reach A1 or novice level if you are a beginner. Moving up a level will take another 180 hours. Most jobs require at least a B1 or intermediate proficiency, which will take 80 + 180 + 350 + 500 = 1100 hours.
There are standard tests that will determine the level of your English on the CEFR and ACTFL so that you can calculate how many hours it will take to reach the next level. For example, if you are at A2 level (elementary), you will have to study for another 350 hours to get an intermediate level of English.
If you study only one hour per week, it will take 350 weeks or just over seven years to reach the next level. However, studying one hour per day will take about a year to reach B1.
Studying full-time, five hours per day, and two hours of practice, you can become fluent in English within a year.
What Are The Key Factors In Learning English?
Age is an important factor in learning English, and adults will take longer to learn English than children.
However, each person’s situation is different, so the rates at which adults learn English will vary. The guidelines provided by the CEFR and ATCFL are general and assume that you are going to language classes, for example.
Other factors that will influence how long it will take to learn English include:
- Your current ability to speak English
- The level of English you want to achieve and why
- Your educational and linguistic background
- Your environment (especially if it is English-speaking)
- How much time and effort you can put into studying and practice
Let’s explore each of these factors in more detail.
What Is Your Current Level of English?
The most crucial factor that will influence how long it will take to learn English is your existing proficiency in English.
There are various tests you can take to determine your level of proficiency. Depending on your starting level, you can see from the table above that it takes an increasing amount of study to improve as the desired level of proficiency increases. For example, to improve from novice to elementary level will take around 180 hours. However, moving from intermediate to complete mastery (university level) will require over 1000 hours.
However, your level of proficiency should not discourage you from learning English – with time and effort, even a beginner can begin communicating reasonably quickly, and you will see rapid progress.
What Level Of English Do You Want To Reach And Why?
A second important factor in the time it will take to learn English is your motivation: in other words, what is your reason for learning English? Is there a particular level of fluency you need to reach? Is studying English simply a hobby, or do you need it for your career?
Knowing your goal in learning English helps you estimate the hours of study you will need to achieve that goal. You can then determine the resources (time, finances, effort, etc.) you require and how you can go about your study of English.
The impetus to achieve fluency will encourage you as you work on your language skills.
What Is Your Educational And Linguistic Background?
How quickly you will be able to learn English will be influenced by your educational background. For instance, if you have been through secondary and tertiary education, you have transferable study and research skills to rely on as you embark on studying English.
Similarly, if you have already acquired a second or third language, you have skills and knowledge that you can apply to studying English.
Your speed in learning English also depends on which languages you speak, read, and write. Suppose your first language uses a different alphabet or writing system than English (for instance, Korean, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, etc.). In that case, getting used to the English alphabet and phonetic system will take longer. If your language shares the English alphabet, you have an advantage.
Another aspect that influences the speed of language acquisition is mutual intelligibility, meaning you can learn closely related languages more easily. For instance, if you understand Hindi, you will be able to learn Gujarati and Urdu more quickly.
English is categorized as a Germanic language, suggesting that if you know German, Dutch or Norwegian, you should be able to learn it more quickly. However, these languages are not strictly mutually intelligible with English.
Are You In An English-speaking Environment?
Being in a native English-speaking environment is a huge advantage in learning English more quickly.
Practicing English in real-world environments speeds up language acquisition, as you can use the language in relevant and meaningful contexts. You have the opportunity to use English in your daily life and adapt your skills and knowledge to the native speakers around you.
Furthermore, if you are in an immersion situation, where your ability to speak English improves your daily quality of life, the environment becomes a motivation to develop language skills.
How Much Can You Study And Practice English?
Knowing how long it can take to improve your English from novice to intermediate and beyond gives an idea of how much time and effort it takes to learn the language.
The amount of time and effort you put in will depend on your reasons for learning English. If you are an immigrant or refugee, you will put in as much time and effort as possible, as your daily life and job depend on communicating in English. If you simply want to learn English to enjoy movies or books, you will not have the same mindset.
However motivated you are, your available time and effort also depend on your other responsibilities, activities, and resources. If you have a full-time job and family, you will not have as much opportunity in terms of time and finance to study as a full-time student. Having a private tutor will also improve your chances of learning quickly, but it is beyond many people’s budget.
Your attitude to learning also influences your desire to put in time and effort. Studying a language can be technical and repetitive. Students get bored, discouraged, and even frustrated, so it is crucial to keep a positive attitude to learning and remind yourself of your goals. Celebrate every small achievement, and focus on the progress you make from week to week.
As with any other learning situation, the more effort and time you put in, the more success you will have in learning. Ideally, daily study and practice are the quickest way to develop your language skills.
What Are The Best Ways To Learn English?
If you decide to learn English or improve your proficiency, there are many different approaches. Which method or combination of ways you choose will depend on your language level, personality, personal resources, and motivation for learning English.
We have a series of 4 articles you can access to help decide the best way for you to learn English. Including this one, the others are listed below.
Learning English At A Language School
One of the most common and successful ways to learn English is through classroom education, a language school, or a college course.
This approach is beneficial for beginners with no knowledge of English. Schools have structured curricula, use proven methods, employ qualified, native-language trainers, and have plenty of appropriate and relevant study resources to help you make step-by-step progress.
Formal language courses teach all aspects of the language, including speaking, reading, writing, listening, and grammar. You have a well-rounded education and get into good habits of correct pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
A language school is an excellent choice if you like getting to grips with all aspects of a language and are a friendly person who learns best with others.
However, this approach can be restrictive to people who had negative experiences with language learning in high school, where rote-style methods were forced on learners.
A language class may also not meet your needs, especially if you want to learn only conversational English. The curriculum also can’t be customized.
Furthermore, language classes tend to work at the pace of the slowest learner, which can be frustrating if you want to progress.
Finally, these schools require you to attend classes in person, making it tricky if you have a job or other responsibilities. They are also quite costly.
Learning English With A Tutor
Taking private language classes with a tutor is a good option if you want your curriculum to be customized and your schedule to be flexible.
A qualified, experienced tutor can select resources and tailor a course for you, depending on your goals and motivation. You can also progress at a pace that suits you and learn English quickly if you have a gift for languages.
The disadvantage is that you don’t get as much practice and encouragement as you would with a classroom of peers. A one-on-one tutor is also very expensive.
Learning English Online
There are several online language schools and tutors, many of which offer face-to-face, one-to-one classes. Online classes have the same advantages as a language school or tutor, as you have a ready-made curriculum, qualified teachers, and access to excellent resources.
You can also interact with other students via online programs and apps.
Online classes are ideal if you can’t attend a language school for personal or physical reasons and need a flexible schedule. It’s also great if you are distracted by a class full of people.
Teaching Yourself English
Another option is to teach yourself English or self-study.
In the past, this was tricky as the only resources were books and tape recordings. With the explosion of free digital resources, you can access all kinds of curricula, learning resources, teaching videos, etc., from your home.
For example, if you choose to self-study English, you can:
- Take a language course online (LingQ), using an app (DuoLingo), or using a podcast (Innovative Language).
- Sign up for a language exchange, which puts people together who want to learn a new language and teach their own.
- Join a community of learners doing self-study who share resources and information.
- Access YouTube, which has a wealth of free material, including whole language courses, short stories, movie clips, and music videos.
Teaching yourself English requires massive self-discipline, persistence, patience, and the willingness to find your resources and opportunities to practice.
The advantages of self-study are that you can customize your curriculum, schedule, and pace. You can study at your convenience, whenever you have time, and wherever. It is also by far the cheapest option.
If you are solitary, this method of study is ideal. However, the significant disadvantage is that you don’t have anyone to coach, guide, and encourage you, nor do you have many opportunities for practice with others.
The immersion approach means spending time in a native English-speaking country where you are surrounded by the language and “forced” to learn and speak it.
On the one hand, this is the experience of immigrants with little choice. On the other hand, many courses, homestays, and volunteer opportunities expose you to English similarly. You can also simply travel to a country to have an immersive experience.
The advantage of immersion is that you learn English as spoken by ordinary people daily. You also get an insight into the culture, customs, and habits of native speakers.
The disadvantage of immersion is that you need an extended period to learn English, so a two-week visit is not enough. You also may not be learning the kind of English you want – chatting to people over dinner won’t teach you business English.
Also, suppose you do not know English at all. In that case, this approach can be overwhelming and demotivating as you may feel you don’t understand anything, so it is best combined with some formal language classes.
A combination of intense language classes five hours per day and two hours of practice and interacting with others in a native-speaking environment allows you to learn English fluently within six months.
Or sign up for an immersive experience once you can speak some English and enjoy the progress you will make.
How long it will take to learn English depends on factors such as the learner’s age, motivation, linguistic ability, access to resources, and commitment to learning. While children can learn a language within six months if immersed in it, adults will take up to a year.