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From Novice to Native: How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language?

An online English teacher teaches in front of her laptop.

Learning a new language may seem like a daunting task. Adults taking language courses for business purposes are often highly motivated, as are the companies that invest in their training. So, how long does it take to learn a language? This is an important question for both the learners and stakeholders. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) provides estimated timelines for progressing from one language level to the next, but a variety of factors can influence the amount of time that will need to be invested.

Many things influence how long it takes to learn English, but the following 10 factors are the most important to consider. Let’s dive in!

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1. Prior language learning experience

If a person has previously learned a second language or has experience with language learning techniques, they may have an advantage in acquiring English skills more quickly.

For example, if a student in India has grown up speaking Hindi and also learning the local state language, then picking up English may prove easier. A student like this already knows to look for different sentence structures, verb conjugations, and correct spelling. Even though every language is different, they all have rules and exceptions to the rules, and having learned a language before can impact the amount of time it takes to learn English.

2. Native language of the learner

Ever wonder why Germans tend to speak such good English? It’s because English and German share the same provenance. The native language or mother tongue of an individual can affect the learning speed of an additional language. Some languages share similarities with English, such as vocabulary or grammatical structures, which can facilitate the learning process.

Conversely, those who speak a Romance language like Spanish or Italian may find it harder to perfect their English.

Bridge alum Jorge, teaching English to employees at Nestlé in Chile

3. Instructional methods

People have unique learning styles, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Tailoring the learning approach to match one’s preferred style can enhance comprehension and retention of English language skills. In fact, learning should be personalized for individual learner needs, as there is no one-size-fits-all method.

Business English teachers with Bridge Corporate Language Learning combine the CEFR with the GSE (Global Scale of English), which expands learner levels from six to a 10-90 scale. The GSE maps students’ target performance across a range of skills and domains, giving teachers a roadmap of learning objectives to inform their teaching strategies and course materials.

Essentially, the CEFR provides teachers with universally understood descriptions of English proficiency levels, and the granular scale of the GSE specifies what a learner can do within each of these levels. Using these tools in tandem can help fast-track learning progress.

Explore more ways to hyper-personalize Business English training.

4. Use of authentic resources

This goes hand in hand with instructional methods as access to authentic resources that put language learning in the context of job-specific tasks can influence how long it takes to learn English. A task-based learning methodology, for example, may provide authentic resources for the learner to practice writing emails or reports, or a variety of other typical job-specific tasks. With effective instructional techniques and support, such as using language learning apps, project-based tasks, and working with a tutor, task-based learning will optimize the learning experience.

As Business English language learners will often engage with other non-native English speakers in their professional capacity, Bridge teachers also use course materials that teach English as a global language, recognizing varied accents, dialects, and cultural nuances.

“We use Pearson’s materials,” said Bridge’s Academic Operations Coordinator, Umut Ergöz, “which have lots of listening materials where the speakers are speaking with Japanese accents, Indian accents, Australian accents, Scottish accents, and so on.”

He also shared that Bridge teachers use video as well to expose students to other ways people speak and use English.

Read about five ways to use AI as your personal teaching assistant.

5. Age of learner

Generally, younger learners tend to acquire languages more easily than adults. Children have a higher degree of language plasticity and tend to pick up languages through immersion and natural exposure. However, this doesn’t mean that adults cannot learn English proficiently; they just may approach the learning process differently. An adult student may feel self-conscious speaking aloud or struggle to find time to practice the language, but with the right instructional methods, rapport with a teacher, and flexible course schedules, there are workarounds to address challenges for adult learners.

Many adult students use language apps like FLOW Speak, Duolingo, or TalkPal for conversational practice. Teachers can provide information about resources like these to use for extended learning beyond the classroom.

For example, the FLOW Speak app features speaking and listening practice lessons, many of which are geared toward using Business English in various situations.

Read more about some of the best digital tools for teaching English online.

Bridge alum Lisa, teaching Business English online in Argentina

6. The learning domain

The learning environment, including access to resources, exposure to native English speakers, and immersion opportunities, can greatly impact learning speed. Living in an English-speaking country or regularly interacting with native speakers tends to accelerate fluency. For example, if somebody who only speaks Spanish moves to England, the natural exposure to English will likely accelerate language acquisition.

Whether teaching online or in person, teachers can do a lot to create a fun, engaging, and effective learning environment for their students. Using realia, authentic objects from real life, in the classroom makes learning experiences more memorable and creates connections between the objects and language concepts.

Teachers can also integrate games and activities in instruction, including with adult students, to help students relax, make learning fun, and provide low-stakes ways for students to apply their learning.

Find out more about using games in the adult ELT classroom.

7. Motivation and dedication

How long does it take to learn English? A lot of that also depends on the level of motivation and dedication a person brings to their language learning journey. A highly motivated person can significantly reduce the time required to learn a language. Consistent practice, a positive attitude, and a genuine desire to learn English can put a learner on the fast track to fluency.

Teachers can influence the motivation level of their students as well. Facilitating engaging classes, using realia, and instituting games and activities can make learning fun and inspire learners to give it their all.

The GSE is another effective tool for motivation. The expanded language level scales show micro-learning progressions that can’t be seen in the shorter scale of the CEFR. Leveraging the GSE allows teachers and students to track and celebrate progress made toward the next CEFR level.

Lastly, teachers can also create opportunities for rewarding learning experiences. Acknowledging the progress of students through personalized verbal or written feedback, progress reports, and certificates and rewards builds confidence in students and increases their motivation.

Learn more about effective strategies for giving feedback to ESL students.

8. Starting proficiency level

The initial level of English proficiency influences the learning timeline. Beginners may take more time to grasp the basics, while those with some prior knowledge may progress at a faster rate. Even a person who consumes more media in English will be at a better starting point than someone who does not.

The amount of time needed to learn English also depends on the goals each person has. Some people may want to be completely fluent, while others are satisfied with reaching the proficiency necessary to complete their specific job tasks.

class of adult learners working together.
English language learners come from an incredible variety of backgrounds, professions, cultures, and ages. It’s never too late to continue learning.

Bridge teachers leverage adaptive learning technology of placement tests and other student assessments to determine students’ English levels at the start of language training and to assess progress. Tests like Linguaskill and Pearson’s Level Test align with the CEFR, which can then be combined with the GSE to create customized learning paths.

Interested in teaching Business English? Explore Bridge’s Specialized Certification in Teaching Business English.

9. Cultural and social factors

Oftentimes, there are common misconceptions about learning a language. Some may believe that simply completing lessons and tests is the way to learn English. This is especially true in countries where second languages are not as common. For example, people in European countries who are exposed to various languages throughout schooling understand that learning English is a lifelong process. On the other hand, in a country like the United States where there is not a common culture of learning an additional language, there’s more often the misconception that it can be learned quickly.

10. Natural aptitude

Some learners simply have a natural talent for picking up a new language. Language aptitude encompasses factors such as memory, analytical skills, and the ability to recognize patterns.

While some people may find it more difficult to learn English, it does not mean that it’s a farfetched goal. With proper instruction and individual attention, everyone can advance with language acquisition as long as there is some degree of motivation.

These 10 factors influence the amount of time it takes to learn English. Of course, individuals who start young and are in an immersive environment will have an advantage; however, with the right language training, there are many ways to increase the speed and efficiency of the learning process.

Interested in a career in teaching Business English? Read about the essentials of teaching Business English online and in person.

Rashmi is a culture vulture who hopes to travel the world. News is her second love, after coffee.