How long does it take to learn a language?

This is a seemingly simple question, but fascinatingly difficult to answer, and one that I’ve noticed people tend to differ wildly on. There are apps out there which promise to teach you a language in unfeasibly short periods of time, and many people appear to take their claims at face value.

Others seem to have the impression that once you get your language degree, that knowledge will be with you for life. But as all of us who live multilingual lives know all too well, the truth is more complicated than that.

For this blog article, I thought I’d take a look at the phenomenon that is language learning and acquisition – how exactly do we learn languages and what is the process? Is it really possible to pick up a language in mere months? And when exactly does the process end – how do we achieve true fluency, if such a thing even exists?

Languages are alive

The first thing to get straight is this: languages are not fixed entities.

They are living phenomena which expand and contract, shapeshift, morph and evolve as time goes by. Old words slip away into oblivion and new word enter our lexicons to describe new inventions or problems.

In that sense, languages are a bit like our own brains and memories, which are constantly assessing and reassessing what information we need to retain, how quickly we should be able to recall certain words, and what can be filed away into the archives.

The combination of these two facts means that languages are not simply something we can pick up off the shelf and take away with us. No matter what a crash course or a brand new app might promise, and much to the dismay of many a young language learner which aspirations to become a polyglot who can speak six or seven languages.

The frustrating reality is that each language we learn needs to be constantly updated, practised and refined. Just like how an athlete loses their skills if they don’t train every day, or how computer programmes become obsolete if they don’t keep up to date with new developments.

Take for example the case of a linguist I once knew who moved from the UK to France at a young age in the mid-90s. By the time he got to university, he was proficiently bilingual, but his English had ossified.

He used quintessential 90s slang words like wicked or dope, and half his vocabulary was lifted straight from shows like Friends or The Simpsons.

His speech was clunky and cumbersome, too, and he realised that it now took more mental energy to speak what was once his native language than it did to speak his adopted French. So it is clear that language learning is not a cut-and-dried process, but what does this mean for learners of a second language?

Learning at a young age

It has long been thought that children are much better at learning languages than adults, and this is largely true. Young brains soak up new words like a sponge as part of an almost automatic acquisition process that requires little concerted effort.

Kids are more attune to different accents and find it easier to mimic and pick up new sounds.

Many studies suggest that in order to become truly fluent in a second language, we need to begin learning before the age of ten. Somewhere between ten and eighteen, our natural flair tapers off and language learning becomes a more difficult and demanding process.

This is one of the reasons why Scandinavian speakers have a reputation for being particularly good at English and languages in general. We begin learning at a young age and spend our childhoods absorbing vocabulary from American music and culture.

Even despite the unique phonology of Danish, which is notoriously difficult even for kids to acquire, growing up in Denmark gave me some key skills and a good foundation for a lifetime of language learning.

However, language learning does not end in childhood. A recent study found that people do not fully master the grammar of their own native language until around the age of thirty, and that on average we learn one new word – in our native language – each and every day.

The same study also found that adults have different tools for learning foreign languages, like better attention spans and crucial literacy skills, but that picking up and retaining new words and grammatical constructions now takes a great deal more effort and dedication – and that it may take full immersion in order to really make progress.

Cultivating and nurturing our skills

What the above means in practice is that people who speak multiple languages need to constantly cultivate and nurture the skills they have in order to keep them alive.

Again, this is a two-pronged process – it is a matter of both telling our brains we still need certain words or grammatical skills, but also checking in with the cultures within which our other languages exist and take shape, so that we can keep abreast of how they change and evolve.

For a professional translator who works with multiple languages, this means constantly finding ways to engage and use all the languages they speak. Perhaps starting the day with a newspaper in Swedish, listening to a podcast in Spanish on the commute to work and phoning a friend in English at lunch time.

Many linguists are constantly putting out their cultural tentacles in search of new media to consume and new people to connect with.

That is also one of the major advantages we have at Comunica – our office is a vibrant multicultural space packed to the brim with opportunities to share and connect in different languages all through the day.

But for some of our linguists who live in their native countries, keeping their skills fresh can require a great deal of extracurricular effort.

A rewarding pursuit

Returning to my question from the beginning it seems clear that, yes, language learning really is a life-long pursuit.

Many people who begin the process later in life may never feel able to call themselves truly fluent, while even our native languages can falter over time if we live abroad and lose contact with home.

This makes fluency a slippery concept and means that multilingual individuals need to constantly toil and graft so as not to lose what they have learned and acquired.

But despite all that, language learning is a thoroughly rewarding process.

Speaking multiple languages means being able to connect with people from all corners of the world, to access and follow developments from certain parts of the globe in greater detail, and to enjoy a broader range of culture and entertainment.

So while speaking multiple languages may require continuous effort, it quickly becomes a core part of our lives – and one that we would not soon be without.