Can you learn a language in three months?

We see this claim repeated over and over again in pop-ups that appear in our browser or in YouTube, usually originating from language learning platforms or blogs. But is it true? The short answer: no. The slightly longer answer: sort of. Perhaps an explanation is required.

We better start with what we mean by ‘learn’, as this is in itself kind of a fuzzy concept. Of course there are many grades and degrees of learning anything, so if we say we have ‘learnt’ something we haven’t really said a whole lot. A seventeen year old who has just passed their driving test could be said to have ‘learnt’ to drive, but then so could Lewis Hamilton! However the difference between these two is pretty huge, obviously. In fact the beginner driver is often barely competent going by the standards of drivers with a few years of experience under their belts.

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So maybe we better say that to have learnt how to drive really consists of having learnt all the basics and having acquired a licence, then from there we would need to have picked up some experience with many hours on the road. This final step is really what smoothes off all the rough edges and builds up confidence and a relaxed state of mind, often sorely lacking in someone who recently passed their test. We know at that point that we can handle all manner of situations and stay cool under pressure, not having to think too much about what we are doing and so on. We may not be a Lewis Hamilton yet, but it would be fair to say we have learnt how to drive.

Learning the basics of a language

Languages are much the same in a lot of ways. At the start we are just learning the basics and getting familiar with how everything works. Once we have an idea what is going on with the language we are all set to really get into building up vocabulary and improving our levels of comprehension and finally to start conversing. This last step is a lot easier if we already have a decent level of comprehension of the fundamentals of the language, some basic grammar and hopefully enough words to be able to communicate about subjects of interest. All of this takes time. So it is wise to be skeptical about these three month claims, if the standard is knowing enough to be able to hold down a decent conversation beyond the weather, what country you are from or maybe ordering a sandwich.

What does ‘to learn a language’ actually mean?

Going back to our driving example, we could compare having covered the basics of the language and a rudimentary vocabulary to a beginner driver who is working toward passing the test. You wouldn’t really expect it all to come together into a meaningful whole until after quite a bit of practice. But having said all that I think we can say that it is absolutely realistic to learn the basics of a language in three months and to the level of basic conversational ability, to read simple materials and so forth. If that is what is meant by ‘learn’, then sure, this is definitely doable with some intensive study. And of course, it goes without saying that those who have experience in learning languages are likely to progress much faster and get a lot more done inside that time period, even to the point of being able to converse fairly well.

So to learn a language and if we are talking about real fluency, then we better be ready for the long haul. We’ll need to know thousands and thousands of words and have really put in the hours in conversation, ideally with native speakers.

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