If you're thinking about learning French, you’re probably wondering how long it will take.
If you're paying for classes, you might be interested in the financial investment. But more likely, you're just wondering how long it will be before you can actually use your French to start conversing with native speakers!
While there is no simple answer, in this article, I’ll do my best to give you an idea of how long it can take and some of the different variables involved.
By the time you finish this article, you’ll have a better idea of what you can expect as a French learner.
You’ll be able to set your realistic goals and expectations to match your own situation and French learning journey.
By the way, if you want to learn French quickly and having fun while doing it, I strongly recommend French Uncovered, my in-depth online French course for beginners that teaches you through the power of story.
Anyway, back to the question at hand… how long does it take to learn French?
Before answering the question of how long it takes to learn French, let’s take a step back and consider a more basic question: what does it mean to “learn French”?
Let’s assume you want to be a bit more ambitious than just learning a few stock phrases for your holiday and that your goal is to become “fluent”…
But even then, what does being “fluent” actually mean?
Some people take fluency to mean native-level proficiency, while others would define it as simply a comfortable conversational level.
If your goal is to speak like a native, then it’s going to take you quite some time!
But from the perspective of a learner, perhaps a better way to understand “fluent” would be the ability to speak and understand at normal speed without lots of pauses to search for words.
Fluent speakers may still make a few mistakes, but they are able to speak naturally without too much hesitation.
So, how long does it take to reach this level of proficiency?
A useful tool we can employ when talking about different levels in language learning is the Common European Framework for Languages.
This guideline breaks language proficiency into six levels as you can see in this graphic:
If we are talking about being “fluent” in French as being able to hold conversations at normal speed without too many pauses or hesitations, we’re looking at something like the top end of the B2 level.
A C1 speaker can certainly be described as fluent according to this definition, even if they haven’t quite reached a native-like level yet.
So how long does it take to reach a high B2 level in French?
It can vary greatly depending on a number of factors, so now let’s look at some of the most important ones…
Possibly the most important factor affecting how quickly you learn a language is how different that language is from your native language.
For example, Chinese is considered very difficult for English speakers, mainly because it so different from English.
However, if a language has a lot in common with your native language, then it will be easier to learn.
French belongs to the group of languages known as Romance languages, the languages descended from Latin.
This group includes Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, and for speakers of these languages, French is quite easy.
English is located further away on the family tree of languages, but not so far: if the Romance languages are the brothers and sisters of French, then English is its cousin.
While the grammar is not quite the same, the two languages still have much in common.
As you’ve probably noticed, French and English share a great many cognates – words that are the same in both languages!
In fact, it is estimated that over a third of English words come from French!
This means if you speak English, even as a second language, when you begin studying French, you already have a large bank of French words you know already.
This is a great shortcut and makes French a lot faster to learn for an English speaker than for a native Chinese speaker, for example.
Another important factor is whether French is your first foreign language…
…or if you have learnt any other languages before.
You may have heard that each new language you learn is easier than the last and this is true. Although perhaps not for the reasons you might imagine.
Let’s have a look at why.
One reason learners working on a second or third foreign language have an advantage is that they how to learn.
They know what works – and they know what doesn’t.
This means experienced language learners won’t waste time doing things that don’t help acquire the new language in the quickest and most efficient way.
For example, an experienced learner is unlikely to waste time rote memorising lists of vocabulary.
They already know that this not how our brains acquire language. And they’ve discovered better ways to make new words stick.
Experienced learners tend to be faster learners because they spend their time more effectively, on things that really work.
Having previous experience of learning a language also makes it easier to learn French because you’re less likely to become demotivated or intimidated when you encounter difficulties.
Very often, inexperienced learners can become blocked when faced with something new because they don’t understand how it works or how to approach it.
Take the French expression qu’est-ce que c’est? (what is it?), for example.
To a new learner, this expression probably looks like a horrible jumble of strangeness.
Thinking like this is just over-complicating matters.
The best way to approach it is to stop trying to pick it apart and just accept that qu’est-ce que c’est? means ‘what is it?’ and leave it at that.
Experienced learners tend to be much better at this than first-timers.
Finally, many beginners, especially adults, are naturally afraid to open their mouths and speak.
They are worried about making mistakes or sounding silly. So they prefer to keep their mouths shut rather than taking a risk.
This is ok at first, but eventually, you will need to speak French if you want to keep improving.
The third factor affecting how long it will take you to learn French is your learning intensity and environment:
If you want to learn to speak French, you should try to study every day.
Some people think learning languages is hard. And this is certainly true if you study for only one hour once a week.
By the time a week has passed, you’ll probably have forgotten most of what you learned the previous week. And find yourself back at square one!
On the other hand, if you study for 15-20 minutes every day, French will become much easier.
Language learning is all about practice. And the more you use your French, the easier it will become to learn and remember everything.
There is a myth that if you go to live in a country, you will automatically ‘pick up’ the language with no effort at all – apparently just by breathing the air.
This is completely false! I should know… I’ve spent a lot of time living and working abroad.
You see… immersion doesn’t mean moving to France!
It means surrounding yourself in the language and making it an important part of your everyday life.
Lots of people sadly manage to live in foreign countries for many years without ever learning the language.
While others learn to speak fluent despite spending little to no time in French-speaking countries.
What you need is a learning environment that allows you to practice often. And spend lots of time with language – listening, reading, speaking and living it.
Nowadays, you have the opportunity to do this with a huge variety of French online resources available at the click of button from your own home!
Another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is your motivation for learning.
If you ask two learners why they are learning a language and one answers that his boss is forcing him while the other says she is learning for fun because it’s interesting, which one do you think will be more successful?
Learning any language requires a large investment of time and effort. And sometimes you will become disheartened.
If you're learning because you are interested in that language, you'll find it so much easier to motivate yourself during those moments of doubt.
It is very hard to learn a language when you don’t really want to.
With so many factors at play, it is almost meaningless to give a single figure.
However, we can at least look at a couple of possible answers.
According to the Alliance Française, it takes between 560 and 650 hours of lessons to reach a B2 level in French.
However, this estimate doesn’t take into account many of the possible variables. So in terms of months and years, this estimate could vary wildly depending on the intensity of study and other factors.
The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) gives a more specific guideline, stating that 575-600 classroom hours are required to acquire enough French to “use it as a tool to get things done”, by which we can understand a level equating to B2/C1.
But, these hours are supposed to be completed within 23-24 weeks… in other words, these students are expected to reach a good level of proficiency in under half a year.
However, these classroom hours are supposed to be supplemented by students’ own personal study. And, although they have no prior knowledge of French, the students are considered to have an above average aptitude for learning languages. And when this is not the case, the learning period is expected to be longer.
This kind of intense study under ideal conditions is not possible for everyone.
For a dedicated and motivated student studying in France and speaking French every day, the lower end of the timescale may start at about six months. But it could take up to a year or more to reach this level, depending on other factors.
When it comes to independent study, for an experienced, motivated language learner studying for an hour a day, six days a week and able to find an environment in which to practise regularly, it would probably take more like a year and a half to two years to reach this level.
If you have less experience, less time to spend studying and perhaps a little less dedication, the timescale could easily be longer.
If you are thinking about learning French, the important thing is to be realistic. Learning any language takes time and perseverance.
After the first few weeks when you will learn rapidly, progress may seem to slow.
However, as long as you keep at it, you will reach your goal.
Whether you learn French fast or slow, just try to stay motivated and don’t give up. You'll soon begin to realise just how much progress you're making.
If you'd like to speed up your French learning journey, without spending all your time pouring over grammar books, then I've got something for you.
It's French Uncovered, my story-based course, that will help you go from French beginner or false beginner (A1-A2 on the CEFR) to intermediate while immersing yourself in a compelling story.
Instead of learning grammar rules and ending up translating in your head when you speak, your learning takes place as you read and listen to the story.
It's the same process I used to learn Italian in 3 months from home, by just listening to and reading compelling content. I've distilled that method into a comprehensive course where I help you discover French through story.
If that sounds like a learning method you'd like to try, then go check out the course here.
Are you learning French? What are your goals in the language? Leave a comment and let me know!