If you’re about to embark on a study abroad course or a cruise around Europe, you may find yourself wondering, how long does it take to learn French?
Most native English speakers can learn French fluently with 575-600 hours of study and practice. This means that you could learn French in six months if you dedicate six hours a day to the task, or in four years if you can only commit twenty minutes a day to study.
Answer 7 Questions to Find Out How Fast You Will Learn French
The average French language learner can gain fluency with 600 hours of study, according to the Foreign Services Institute which prepares American diplomats to work abroad. The FSI based this number on the relative difficulty of French compared to English.
Because French shares many similarities with English, it is classified as a Category 1 language, the easiest level of language to learn. (To give you a comparison point, Japanese gets a Category 5 classification and requires an estimated 2,200 hours of study for basic fluency!).
But the truth of the matter is that language learning is a personal endeavor, and the amount of time it takes you to master French will depend on many different factors.
What is Your Native Language?
Your native language will influence how long it takes you to learn French. If you speak a language that shares its linguistic roots with French and looks and sounds more like French, it makes sense that you will find it easier to learn French.
How long does it take you to learn French if you speak English? The great news about learning French as a native English speaker is that French and English share a similar grammar structure as well as quite a lot of vocabulary. Back in 1066, William the Conqueror invaded England from France and ended up merging many French words into the English language.
English and French actually use a huge amount of shared vocabulary. The MacMillan dictionary estimates that English and French share over 10,000 cognates, or words spelled the same way with the same meaning. Obviously, knowing so many words before you even begin learning French gives you a solid leg up!
As an English speaker, you will also quickly grasp the natural order of a French sentence because it follows the structure of a typical English sentence. French sentences include grammatical components like a subject and verb, just like English sentences.
This is not the case for some context-based languages like Japanese, which often leave the subject out of a sentence! If you speak a non-romance language, you will have a harder time mastering French grammar.
French and English also both use the Latin or Roman alphabet. French does include unique sounds as well as some digraphs and trigraphs–single sounds made out of multiple letters–that English does not use. But you will at least recognize all the letters in French words.
In contrast, languages like Russian use entirely different alphabets, and languages like Mandarin use Hanzi characters instead of letters. These languages take much more work for an English speaker to learn.
How Many Languages Do You Speak?
If you consider yourself a polyglot and speak three, four, or even five languages already, you will learn French at a faster rate than a person learning another language for the first time.
First, you know how to learn languages after mastering so many. You will have picked out exactly the right tools and learning methods that work for you. You already know whether you learn best with audio instruction or by reading a textbook, for example.
Second, your brain is now wired to learn new languages. Your brain creates and strengthens new neurons every time you learn things or gain new skills. Practicing those skills reinforces the neurons, making them stronger.
Another important component of training your brain is teaching it to recognize sounds outside of your native language. If you have lots of experience learning languages, your brain will grow accustomed to mastering new linguistic sounds.
When you grow up speaking your native language, your brain learns to recognize a set group of phonemes, or individual sounds, as meaningful. The tricky thing here is that different languages use different sets of phonemes!
French uses several nasal sounds not included in the English alphabet. These sounds present a challenge for English speakers trying to learn French because your brain struggles to deal with sounds it has not classified as having meaning.
For example, FrenchPod101 describes ow to release air through your nose in order to pronounce French words like “un pin” and “un pan.”
If you already have experience recognizing new phonemes and learning to pronounce them, you will probably learn these nasal French sounds more quickly than a person who has only ever spoken English.
How Old Are You?
If you learn French as a child, or before you turn 18, you will probably learn much faster than an adult. Young brains have more elasticity and the ability to build new neural pathways much more easily than adult brains.
On top of this, language experts like Penn State professor Suzanne Robin explain that young children absorb new language skills unconsciously, rather than consciously storing each new word or phrase in their memory.
The old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is certainly not true when it comes to languages, though! You can learn French at any age. But it is also true that you will probably learn faster before your brain finishes developing.
What Environment Do You Plan to Learn In?
Where you study French plays a huge role in how fast you master the language. Do you plan to study abroad and immerse yourself totally in the language? Or perhaps you married a native French speaker and converse every day in French as you learn.
If you can learn in an immersive environment, your language skills will grow by leaps and bounds. The extra learning speed comes from all the practice, but also from learning to think in French. In a French-speaking environment, you will look at a tomcat and think, “le chat,” instead of thinking, “that is a cat. The French word for that animal is chat.”
Other environments can also shape the way you learn French. For example, did you enroll in a college course to learn French? In this case, you will need to focus heavily on the textbook side of French. You will gain a deep understanding of French grammar and probably memorize long lists of vocabulary.
If you do not have an opportunity to learn in an immersive environment or in a formal course, don’t give up! You can use online tools that approximate an immersive language learning approach. For example, the StoryLearning app teaches you French through an immersive program of listening to and then breaking down short stories told by native speakers.
How Will You Practice French?
Even if you can’t move to France, Monaco, or Belgium, you can find plenty of opportunities to practice French as you learn to speed up your fluency timeline.
The University of North Carolina explains that focusing exclusively on the input of language learning, like literacy skills or learning grammar, is not enough. Instead, you need to pair the new language concepts you learn with the output or practice of those new skills.
So, how can you practice French?
- Join a study group or hire a tutor. Group work allows you to practice speaking French on your feet!
- If you don’t feel comfortable trying your new French skills in public, you can also go virtual and seek out conversational French groups online.
- If you want to focus on your pronunciation skills, you may want to invest in a paid language-learning program like Pimsleur’s app-based French course. This program will give you feedback on the way you pronounce tricky French words with silent letters, or nasal sounds not found in English words.
What Level of French Fluency Do You Need?
When you say you want to “learn French,” what do you actually mean? If you want to read street signs and order food in a Parisian cafe without embarrassing yourself, you can gain that level of fluency way faster than you can master the listening comprehension, pronunciation, and vocabulary necessary to hold a conversation in French.
Because of this, the Council of Europe created a neat system of levels that will help you understand how much fluency you want to attain. This system is called the Common European Framework of Reference for Language, or the CEFR. It breaks language proficiency into six different levels.
Basic User Language Proficiency
First, you have levels A1 and A2, the Basic User levels. At Level A1 a language learner can communicate in basic phrases and ask simple questions. At Level A2, a language learner will move on to understanding some situational sentences and communicating personal information through slow conversation.
If you want to gain an A-level amount of fluency in French, it won’t take you long at all You can probably learn enough phrases and vocabulary to communicate in this simple way with a month of dedicated study.
Independent User Language Proficiency
The next two levels of language proficiency include B1 and B2, which place you in the independent user level of language proficiency.
Level B1 describes a language user who can communicate clearly in familiar situations like work or school in the second language, and also prepare cohesive explanations of future plans, dreams, and goals in the second language. At this level, you would feel comfortable traveling to a place that speaks your second language.
Language Learners at a B2 level dial up their proficiency even more, with the ability to communicate in written or spoken language on technical and subject-specific matters. At this level, you will find it easy to converse spontaneously on most topics with a native speaker. Level B2 is what many people think of when they describe language fluency in a second language.
How long does it take the average person to gain a B1 or B2 level of fluency? As you now know, this will vary from person to person. But in general, you will need to put in about 360 hours of hard work to reach level B! And at least 560 hours of study to reach level B2, according to a study done by the Alliance Francois.
Proficient Language User
Levels C1 and C2 in the CEFR describe a language learner who has reached true proficiency in the second language.
Level C1 describes a language learner who has essentially mastered literary French and can understand complex texts. If you reach this level, you will also find it easy to communicate with native speakers on pretty much any topic including work-related or academic conversations.
Level C2 reaches such a high level of fluency that it seems almost indistinguishable from the language use of a native speaker. If you reach this level of mastery, you will find it easy to use precise language and interpret implicit meanings in conversations or texts.
In all honesty, the only real way to reach a level C2 in French language proficiency is to live somewhere where you speak French as your primary language. If you use the Alliance Francois estimate again, you will also need to commit to at least 1,000 to 1,200 hours of study to achieve this linguistic mastery!
How Much Time Can You Commit?
The amount of time you can commit to learning French also factors into how fast you gain fluency. If you set aside a month to prepare to study abroad and devote six or seven hours a day to language study, you will almost certainly reach at least a basic user A1 or A2 level of proficiency before you begin your travels.
If you live a busy life full of work or school, you may find it easier to dedicate twenty or thirty minutes a day to learning French. In this case, it will take you closer to four years to hit that key 600 hours of study necessary for fluency.
Keep in mind that getting an A in a college French course or completing an online language course does not guarantee any level of proficiency in French. You can put in a solid 100 or 200 hours of study for a French course and end up with a good grasp of grammar, but not the ability to converse in public.
This means that the time you put in makes a huge difference, but it is not the only important factor in how fast you will learn French. The way you learn matters even more than how much time you spend studying.
Can you learn French in 3 months? Most people find it easier to learn basic French fluency in about six months of dedicated study. But if you can put in 600 hours of study in three months, go for it!