How Long Does It Take To Learn French?

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So you’ve decided you want to learn the language of love but how long will it take you to realistically master the French language?

Want to learn French faster, a trip to the city of love will motivate you.
Want to learn French faster? A trip to the city of love could be a good motivation. Photo by Paul Dufour on Unsplash

Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple… It would certainly make life for teachers and students alike much more convenient if it were. But sadly, learning a language, in this case, French, can’t be boiled down to “x” number of hours study until you reach fluency.

This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, learning any language is a complex process in itself. Secondly, how quickly you’ll pick up a language varies greatly from person to person. And finally, there are a lot of different factors which influence how easy or hard it is to learn a language. Not to mention, the concept of fluency is, well, somewhat fluid, shall we say?

What does fluency mean?

For the sake of this blog post, let’s assume that when somebody says they want to “learn French”, they mean that they want to be able to communicate fluently in French. For most people, myself included, being fluent in this case would mean being able to understand the majority of written and spoken French and being able to respond confidently in normal day to day situations.

The Oxford English online dictionary’s definition describes being able to speak “easily and accurately”. This fits my personal definition but there’s definitely room for interpretation. It begs the question, how accurate is does your French need to be to be considered fluent? And, do you need to be able to communicate easily on all topics or just the essentials?

So, this is something you’ll need to think about in order to properly define your goals when it comes to speaking French.

How many hours does it take to learn French?

You may have heard a few theories about how many hours it takes to learn French before you made it to this article. Personally, I’m not a fan of these breakdowns because I find they’re a bit superficial and they don’t take into account how unique each individual’s experience is when learning a language. But these theories certainly provide food for thought.

US Foreign Service Institute Timeline

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the main provider of language-training for the US government, completed a study on how long it took native English-speakers between the ages of 30 and 40 studying at the center to learn different foreign languages and then ranked them in order of difficulty. According to this study, they then grouped them into 6 different categories based on their closeness to the English language. For each category, they also assigned them an estimated number of hours necessary to reach proficiency.

See the full list here.

For English-speakers, French falls into category 1. In other words, it is considered one of the easiest languages to learn because it is “closely related” to English. According to the FSI, it would take an English-speaker approximately 23-24 weeks or 575-600 hours of study to become proficient in the French language. It goes without saying, this is just one study, and just one theory so take it with a grain of salt.

CEFR Guided Learning Hours

If French isn’t the first language you’ve studied (and even if it is), you’ve probably heard mention of CEFR at some point. Ever heard people talking about levels A1 - C2? Those are CEFR levels. If you haven’t, CEFR stands for Common European Framework of Reference for languages.  It’s basically a standardized framework for describing language ability and it’s recognized worldwide. If you wanted an internationally recognized certificate of your language ability in French, for example, you’d look into sitting the DELF or the DALF at Alliance Française.

What does this have to do with how long it will take you to learn French? Well, CEFR supposedly uses a “guided learning hours” framework to estimate how much classroom time you’d need to reach a B2 level. This reference also assumes that for every hour you spend in class, you will dedicate 2 hours of independent study in your own free time.

What other factors will influence how long it takes me to learn French?

If you want to get a better picture of how long it will take you personally to learn French it’s time for a little self-reflection. Answer the questions below for more insight into the language-learning process.

What’s your first language?

This might seem like a bit of an odd question but your first language plays a big part in how quickly or slowly, you learn a foreign language. Obviously, the closer French is to your first language, the easier it will be. So, if your first language is also a Romance language, it should, in theory, be easier for you to pick up French. Here are a few other things to consider.  Does your first language share the same alphabet or will you have to learn a new one? Are there any similar expressions or words in your first language? Do French and your native language have any sounds in common?

Have you studied any other languages in the past?

Studies show, if you’re already bilingual, it’s easier to pick up a third language than it is for someone trying to learn a second language. The good news is, even if you wouldn’t consider yourself bilingual, having previously studied a foreign language in the past could definitely make learning French (or another language) easier.

How’s that? Well, there are a few different ways it can help. Firstly, if studied another language as a teenager or an adult, you’re more likely to have an idea of what study techniques work for you. Secondly, you’re more likely to have a better concept of basic grammar concepts (verb conjugations, tenses, grammatical names for types of words etc.) However, while it can be helpful, it can sometimes also make life more confusing if you’re learning two languages that are very closely related. To give you an example, since I speak both French and Spanish sometimes I mix up “et” and “y” which both mean “and”. Annoying, am I right? This article from Psychology Today looks at how your second language can influence your third language learning experience in more detail and is definitely worth a read.

How much time are you prepared to dedicate to your studies?

This one is a bit of a no-brainer. The more time you’re prepared to practice French, the sooner you’ll see results. When we first start learning a language, it’s usually easier to make progress. A little work reading up before class and reviewing grammar and vocabulary in your own free time will go a long way. If you have a knack for languages, you might actually even get away with doing very little work. However, as you progress, you’ll notice that being in class and doing the set homework simply isn’t enough.

If you’re serious about learning French, you need to make French a part of your everyday routine. That doesn’t mean you have to get the books out every day though. That said,  you do have to practice in some way shape or form every day. That could be thinking about how you would respond in French in your normal day to day situations, listening to French music, or practicing vocabulary using a flashcard app while you wait for a friend at a cafe. You decide what works best for you. 

How fast you’ll learn French depends on how much hard work you’re prepared to put in. Photo by Titouan on Unsplash

How much do you like French?

How much you enjoy French, and how motivated you are to learn it, impact how long it’ll take you to learn it. If your new boyfriend or girlfriend speaks French, that’s definitely a big motivation. If you love the way the language sounds, and are crazy about French culture, that helps too.

The more personal interest you have in the language, the more likely you are to practice outside of the classroom. And, the more you practice on your own, the faster you’re going to progress. So, if you love French movies, watching them in your free time is legitimate practice. Love French cuisine? Looking up a recipe to cook in French is a fun way to learn new vocabulary.

What types of opportunities do you have to practice?

There is no doubt about it. How fast you learn French is directly connected to the opportunities you have to practice. Do you have people who you can communicate with French on the regular? Do you have the opportunity to travel to or live in a French-speaking country?

Immersion is easily the best way to learn a language. You pick up a lot of vocabulary from your day to day experiences and interactions. You learn from reading signposts, advertising, bus timetables, from going to the supermarket or simply having a meal out.

But, that doesn’t mean if you can’t travel to a French-speaking country, you can’t learn French. It just means you need to make a bigger effort to find people to practice with. Are there any meetup or language groups that get together where you live? Does your language academy host events for students to practice? Taking some time to find some people you can speak French with regularly, will pay off.

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