I’m sometimes asked the million dollar question: ”How long does it take to learn French ?” (or any other language, for that matter.)
Another variation to this question is : “How long does it take to become fluent in French ?”
Before I go any further, put yourself in my shoes (if you can fit a 38 European size) : what would YOU answer ?
The Six Levels of Proficiency
A common reference point is the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) which has defined six levels of proficiency:
You can read more about the description for each level here.
This classification is a useful way to assess the level of a student learning a foreign language.
If you have French study textbooks or workbooks, you may see the level printed on the cover (which shows that the book has been designed with the official criteria in mind):
These levels are also the ones used in the DELF/DALF certification.
And if you’re thinking about going to study at a French university, you will be required to show that you have at least a B2 level (B2 of the DELF certificate or the corresponding level 4 of the TCF or TEF tests).
Variables affecting how fast you can improve in French
The CEFR indicates about how many hours of learning it takes to reach each level of proficiency. But how long it will actually take you to progress from one level to the other will greatly vary as it depends on many variables, such as :
- Your motivation and commitment. That’s the most important! (If you are driven by passion, chances are that you will learn faster than if you get dragged to classes.)
- How often you’re having lessons
- How long the lessons are
- How much you cover in one lesson
- Whether you do homework or personal work between lessons
- Fatigue / Worries (you may be having regular lessons, you will not improve as well if your mind is too busy/preoccupied/tired to learn)
- Your exposure to the language (immersion in the country, listening to podcasts, reading in the language, being part of a conversation group, etc.)
- The difficulty of the foreign language compared to your native language (if you’re an English speaker, French should be easier for you to learn than Russian for example)
- What skills you are looking to acquire (when I studied Chinese, I wanted to learn everything, that is to say speak, read and write. Some other expat students were only interested in the conversation part, so we were learning differently)
- Your history of language learning (my husband grew up hearing several languages around him, which makes it easy for him to pick up a new language or accent today.)
- Your own ability to learn a foreign language (some people are faster / slower than others).
- Your age. (Research has shown that learning a foreign language at a very young age is ideal. In my opinion it is not the essential factor as you shouldn’t let your age be an excuse for not starting learning French if you have always wanted to. Language learning is excellent for your memory and brain stimulation. I once had a 83 year old beginner student ; he quickly started writing poems in French. Motivation, dedication, effort and commitment matter more than anything else!)
- Your progress rate. You may plateau sometimes, i.e be at a standstill, without noticing further improvement. That is quite a normal part of the learning process (you can also experience these plateaus when you learn a new instrument).
Can you learn French in 3 months ?
A word of caution here : stay away from these unrealistic promises such as “Fluent in 3 months”, or “Learn French in 10 days”. Seriously, these books, CDs or courses scream “spam”. (To me, it’s as suspicious as “Lose 50kilos in under 2 hours”). Your time and money would be much better spent in a proper course…or in immersion overseas! 😉
As we’ve seen, there are so many variables that it is impossible to tell how long it takes to learn a language. But what I know is : the best way to succeed in learning a language is to be passionate and/or have a big motivation for it because language learning will inevitably require that you invest time and effort.
For instance, one of my students has grandchildren in French Canada and wanted to be able to read them stories and bound with them in French, so that was a big why for her. You may love French cuisine and want to be able to understand the menu and order in French at the restaurant on your next trip. You may want to read a book in French, etc.
When are we fluent in a language?
I think you can tell you’re fluent (or becoming fluent) when :
You feel you do little effort to look for words, speak or understand ; in fact you don’t need to translate : you can directly think in the other language;
- You can deal with the majority of the situations you encounter in the language;
- You can talk about abstract topics, express opinions;
- You dream in the language (a sign that it’s sinking in!)
Maybe we should ask ourselves : when do we actually consider that we are DONE learning a language ? Is there really such a thing as a finish line??
I would be interested to know what you think, because even after several years living in Australia, speaking English fluently, reading tons of books and articles in English effortlessly, and writing articles like the one you are reading right now, I am still learning new words and expressions EVERY day.
In fact, I don’t even consider that I know everything about French, my own native language, and yet I teach French and I have a deeper grammar understanding of this language than many other French people I know. I can’t understand a SINGLE thing on the boring legal documents from France, and I still discover new words in every crossword page I do – I love language games and puzzles.
It’s actually exciting (apart from the boring legal papers) to have languages as part as a lifelong learning process. We should never stop being curious. Never stop educating yourself!
Every bit of practise will help you, have you listen to my two podcast.? There is my weekly French Your Way Podcast which is aimed to help you expand your French Vocabulary, improve your grammar, and gain new understanding of common mistakes that I see made by students. You should start off with these two episodes
- FYW 035 : How to Improve your French Listening skills? My best tips!
- FYW 024 : How to stay motivated learning French?
If you are are a more intermediate to advance level, then please check out French Voices Podcast, these are a series of interview with native French speakers who share their passion, it comes with free complete transcript along with other supporting material. A new episode of French Voices is released on the 1st, and 15th of each month.
And you ? When would you say that one is fluent in a language ? How long does it take to learn French ? Leave a comment in the section below!