Can You Get Fluent in Italian in 3 Months? The Truth.
“Learn Italian While You Sleep.” “How to Become Fluent in German in 3 Months.” “How I learn Any Language in 24 Hours.”
Don’t these titles make you want to scream? I get why they exist: big claims get a big number of clicks. Learn quick titles prey on our desire to get immediate results with minimal effort. We’re always scouring the internet for hacks — hacks to become billionaires, hacks to be happier than Walt Disney, hacks to make anyone fall in love with us on the first date. We search for hacks when it comes to language learning too.
When I decided to move to Italy, I needed to learn Italian as fast as possible. Italian fluency was critical to my social and professional success in Italy. My practical need for the language made me a highly motivated student. Of course, I was drawn in by the idea of Italian fluency in a matter of months, and I religiously followed all the tips and tricks. Three months flew by, and still not fluent, I concluded, “I must be bad at learning languages.” I’d made some progress towards learning Italian, but the improvement was shockingly slow.
There is one major problem with fluency claims: they are subjective. The Cambridge Dictionary defines fluency as “the ability to speak or write a language easily, well, and quickly.” After three months of studying Italian in Italy, I didn’t meet any of those fluency markers. There are polyglots undoubtedly more efficient than I am at mastering the complexities of foreign languages. Even for skilled language learners, however, a three-month timeline is unrealistic.
It’s impossible to say precisely how long it should take you to become fluent in a foreign language. There are many factors to consider:
- How effective are your study techniques?
- How close is your target language to your native language?
- Do you currently live in a country where your target language is spoken?
All of these factors will determine the speed of your progress. Language learning is lifelong, and the longer you spend with a language, the better you can use it. The process is continuous with no clear destination.
That isn’t to say we haven’t tried to define the path to language fluency. The FSI, US Foreign Service Institute, categorizes languages into groups based on the relative difficulty for English learners. For example, Italian is in group 1, Bulgarian is in group 2, Thai is in group 3, and Chinese is in group 4.
Let’s look at an example based on these numbers for a group 1 “easy” language. Pretend you are learning Italian as a full-time job — actively studying for 8 hours a day. You would reach the necessary 480 hours of study at this pace in 60 days, approximately 2 months. For a group 2–4 language, you would be looking at around 3 months to reach basic fluency.
Looking at these numbers, it almost seems possible to learn a langugage in a matter of months. Remember, in this example, you would have to study 8 hours a day with no days off. Even if these estimates could measure fluency, it’s unlikely that most learners will have the time or motivation to pull this off.
The problem is, there is no exact number of study hours that will ensure fluency in a foreign language. Every learner is different, and most people need much longer than a few months to reach real functional fluency. Being able to ask for directions on the street, or order your dinner, are steps in the right direction, but not the same as the ability to speak “easily, well, and quickly.” After almost three years in Italy, I am only now reaching fluency by that definition.
So how long does it take to achieve fluency? There is no solid answer. Learning a foreign language is a time-consuming endeavor, but just how time-consuming depends on an array of individual factors. Rewiring your brain to listen, speak, and think in another language requires long-term, consistent practice. Unfortunately, you can’t hack your way out of the hard work.
If you are willing to put in the time, here are the most helpful tips I’ve acquired from 3 years of studying Italian — by the way, it’s not an “easy language”:
- Use a language app for basic grammar and vocabulary: Language apps can’t take you the whole way to fluency, but they can be an excellent place to start. They are ideal for learning basic sentence structure, regular verb conjugations, and vocabulary. Once you have some of the basics, you unlock more learning resources.
- Listen to music: It’s essential to expose your ear to the new sounds and cadence of the language you are learning. Each language has a rhythm. Listening to music is one of the more enjoyable ways of engaging with a language you may not yet understand.
- Watch YouTube Videos or Films: Early in your language journey, you can watch videos and films in your target language. All you have to do is add subtitles in your native language. As you progress, you can switch to subtitles in your target language and eventually remove subtitles altogether.
- Practice with a friend: The best way to learn a language is through interacting with native speakers. If you don’t know a native speaker of your target language, you can practice with another language learner. Conversation practice is critical at every stage of learning a language.
- Read a book aloud: Reading for pleasure in a foreign language is an advanced skill, but even beginners can read for pronunciation practice. An essential part of learning a language is teaching your mouth to produce new sounds. Reading aloud is the perfect practice for identifying sounds and speaking them with the correct accent and intonation.
- Find people who don’t speak your native language: The fastest way to learn a language is to learn through necessity. When you need to use your target language to communicate, you’ll find creative ways to get your point across. Interacting with people who don’t speak your native language forces you to rely on your newly developing language skills.
- Keep going: Many moments of the language learning process will be overwhelming. Your initial enthusiasm will eventually subside, and you may even begin to doubt your learning capabilities. If you refuse to stop practicing, you will improve. Give yourself time. I’d recommend more than three months.
As with any worthwhile pursuit in life, language learning requires a long-term commitment. Big goals need considerable effort to back them up. While reaching fluency in a new language may not be practical on a short timeline, there is no questioning that putting in the work is ultimately worth it.
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