French is one of the most widely taught languages in the world, and is also one of the most frequently used, with more than 300 million speakers spread over every continent. This makes it the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world, behind Mandarin, English, Spanish and Arabic. As both an official and cultural language, it is important in the worlds of business and diplomacy.
So there are plenty of reasons to learn French! But we all know that learning a language requires time and energy, which raises the question: how long does it take to learn French from scratch? What factors do you need to take into account when you’re learning? Are there any useful tips for optimising and speeding up the process of learning French?
Naturally, the first factor that will play an important role in determining how long it will take to learn a language is the amount of time per week that you are able to devote to your studies. It goes without saying that stay-at-home mums, students and business executives will not all have the same amount of free time. Then, we all learn at our own pace, and this can vary based on factors like age or how similar the language you are trying to learn is to your own language.
One thing which can make it easier to learn a Romance language is the presence of what linguists call ‘cognates’. These are words which come from a single proto-language (such as Latin) and have similar spellings. For example, ‘summer’ and ‘Sommer’ are cognates. Similarly, ‘famille’ in French is a close relative of the English ‘family’ and the German ‘familie’. In some cases, however, this relationship can create confusion. This arises when the words in question are ‘false friends’, i.e. they are spelled similarly but have different meanings. The Italian word ‘camera’, for example, actually means ‘room’. Equally, the French ‘librairie’ is not to be confused with the English ‘library’ (the French word actually means ‘bookshop’). Depending on which language you are hoping to learn, a list of false friends can really help you to avoid misunderstandings.
Researchers from the very serious-minded Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have determined that our ability to learn starts to decline from the age of just 18! This is why it takes longer for adults to learn a foreign language and acquire good pronunciation: the brain becomes less ‘malleable’ and ‘agile’ with age. However, we should say that those over-50s who know Spanish, Portuguese, Italian or Romanian will have an easier time learning French since Romance languages share some things in common.
Travelling in the country whose language you want to learn is always beneficial and is an essential part of any kind of linguistic immersion, even though it’s still possible to learn French online. In France, learners have to use French for all aspects of daily life and engage with the locals’ culture. Achieving goals like understanding the specific context of a communication, participating in shared cultural practices or improving your pronunciation is easier when you live in an environment where everyone speaks the language or when you work with native speakers.
What do we mean when we talk about speaking a language fluently? This is a question which is difficult to answer objectively without referring to the official levels in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL). Being ‘fluent’ implies that you are able to speak naturally and consistently, that you understand idiomatic or humorous expressions and that when you are chatting with native speakers, they don’t need to speak more slowly than usual. To achieve level B2, the CEFRL states that the learner must be capable of producing ‘clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects’ and interacting with ‘spontaneity’ and ‘fluency’.
This question is a focus of many linguists’ work as they seek to quantify how long it takes to reach an advanced level in a given foreign language. It might reassure you to know (and this study contradicts the idea that French is a challenging language), that the U.S. Foreign Service Institute does not consider French to be among the most difficult languages to learn! Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Turkish, Polish and Danish, on the other hand, all maintain their reputation as tricky languages. The renowned American institute believes that it should take English speakers 23–24 weeks to reach an advanced level.
It’s also worth knowing that there are some tips you can use to help optimise your study time. You can download an app onto your smartphone so that you can listen to podcasts in French while on public transport. The key is consistency: it’s vital to go back over and repeat the grammar and vocabulary you have learned every day.
What does the CEFRL, which is the reference document for Europe, similar to the Interagency Language Roundtable in the U.S., have to say on this issue? Many linguists think that it takes at least 600 hours for an elementary-level student (A1) to reach advanced level (B2). This is, naturally, an approximation – much depends on the context and the amount of time students devote to personal study. Learning a language through immersion cuts the amount of time it takes to move from one level to the next – which is why an intensive French course in France is the perfect way to make significant progress.
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