Language Learning Timelines

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has a list of languages for native English speakers with timelines to reach “professional working proficiency,” or level 3 in speaking and writing. These timelines are based on what FSI has observed as the average length of time for a student to achieve proficiency with over 70 years of experience, though the actual time can vary based on a number of factors, including the language learner’s natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and time spent in the classroom.

As you can see, Arabic is a category IV language. But don’t let a higher category dissuade you from learning a language. It simply means that these languages will take more time. I like to think of language learning as a matter of how much quality time you spend learning it.

We often think we’re not cut out for a second language because we “studied Spanish in grade school” and still can’t hold a conversation, but the reality is, after four years of high school, you only put in about 96 hours of thinly-spread Spanish. Now look at the cateogry I languages’ class hours. Surprised? I spent 11 weeks in Guatemala studying Spanish for 5 hours a day one-on-one, and I noticed at about 8 weeks most students became conversational. After my almost 275 hours of instruction, I could read, write, watch movies with subtitles, and hold a conversation in Spanish (though I could still use a lot more practice!). It’s not that you’re “bad at learning languages,” rather you just haven’t put in the requisite time yet. Your level is normal for the few hours you’ve put in.

Arabic likewise will take time. A lot of time. It’s about two and a half years to really learn Arabic. But it’s worth it and it is very rewarding, insha’Allah. Check out my book reviews and Arabic resources, join our Telegram group, and feel free to ask a question.

Category I Languages: 24-30 weeks (600-750 class hours)

Languages more similar to English.

Danish (24 weeks)Dutch (24 weeks)French (30 weeks)
Italian (24 weeks)Norwegian (24 weeks)Portuguese (24 weeks)
Romanian (24 weeks)Spanish (24 weeks)Swedish (24 weeks)

Category II Languages: Approximately 36 weeks (900 class hours)

GermanHaitian CreoleIndonesian

Category III Languages: Approximately 44 weeks (1100 class hours)

“Hard languages” – Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English. This list is not exhaustive.


Category IV Languages: 88 weeks (2200 class hours)

“Super-hard languages” – Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.

ArabicChinese – CantoneseChinese – Mandarin

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