How Long Does It Actually Take To Learn A Language?

In my latest newsletter, I wrote about the realities of moving to a new country and learning a language. I discuss what it’s like for younger kids and older kids. I share favorite resources. I talk about the other kinds of “mini-languages” that you need to learn that you might not have thought of. I’ve been hearing from lots of people who are thinking about making a move to France and are especially curious about language skills. Do they need to learn French before moving here? Do the kids needs to learn French before enrolling in school? If you’re someone who is curious about what our language-learning experience has been like, the newsletter has a whole lot of info you’ll hopefully find helpful. I’ll share an excerpt here, or you can click to read the whole thing (it’s free!). Here’s the excerpt:

Something you might not realize until you’re in the middle of it is that learning a language means acquiring four different skills: Listening Comprehension, Reading, Speaking, and Writing. These might seem like they are all essentially the same thing, but they are actually separate. You can understand someone who is speaking French, without being able to speak French yourself. You can read French, without being able to write French. If you want to learn to do all four, you have to work on each specific skill. And I would recommend doing so in the order I listed: Listening first, writing last.

I’m especially having a hard time with the speaking part. To really do this well requires immersion; spending a lot of time with people who are only speaking French, where you can’t fall back on English. I rarely if ever get this kind of opportunity, because I’m working in English all day long. And it’s a pandemic, so get togethers haven’t really been an option.

Another issue for me, is having lots of bilingual people around me. Ben Blair speaks French well. The kids speak French very well. And most of my French friends here also speak English well. So I’m rarely forced to speak French for extended periods of time. I can run errands, and do the basics, but I need much more practice.

One more reason I’m not progressing as fast as I should be, is that I know just enough French to manage. I studied French in high school, and a semester of college. I feel like I didn’t gain much from those studies at all — though I still have a poem memorized. Hah! — but those studies did give me a head start on reading and a few basics. (Ben also studied French in high school.)

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5 thoughts on “How Long Does It Actually Take To Learn A Language?”

  1. Oh can I relate to this. Working in English while living in France, kids who are fluent, friends who speak French well. We are nearing our time where we can apply for a longer visa here and I am in a complete panic. I am giving myself one year to learn French well enough to pass that damn exam. Big high five for your efforts, it is not easy learning a new language when we are, well, over 21 (wink). Love this post. Thanks for sharing all your thoughts on language learning. Good Luck

  2. I love reading about this kind of experience! I grew up in a bilingual environment (French native + the local dialect from Alsace region in France), and now as an adult I speak fluent English, quite correct German, I can still understand but not speak fluently the local dialect, I remember some Spanish from high school, and promoting all this heavily for my daughter because I would love for her to learn aaaaall the languages 😊

  3. My son started Spanish immersion kindergarten a little older at age 6 last school year. Then pandemic closed schools for several months. He went back to school in person this school year and is making great progress with Spanish in first grade at age 7, and I’m so happy it’s working for him. I’m not sure we’d have the same results if he had to remote learn this year.

  4. I can totally relate! My French is okay but I have the absolute worst accent. I just wish I could speak as beautifully as my children. There’s a real benefit to starting young and being completely immersed. We no longer live in France but inspired by the opportunities she had to learn French and the connections she made when we were there, my daughter started a free online language exchange for teens wishing to practice their English/French. Hope it’s okay to plug it here!

  5. Here is an interesting thing… I truly believe you can’t learn and speak a language fluently unless you live in a foreign country. I grew up in Germany and have learned English starting in 5th grade. I also went to college and got a degree in English, but I don’t feel like I was actually able to completely grasp the language until I moved to the US (on all the levels that you described). Of course, my English was pretty good when I came here, but there are so many nuances in the day-to-day use of a language. I feel that most strikingly when I watch dubbed movies (which we still do in Germany, embarrassingly) because the translation is so horribly bad and often wrong.

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