How long does it take to learn French? Why you may never be fluent

Unlock French fluency: How long does it take to learn French? Factors, myths, and practical tips to speaking passable French

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
speak French fluently?
speak French fluently?

Learning French is a topic that raises many questions for people.

One of the most common questions people ask is, “How long does it take to learn French?”

The answer is: It can take you anywhere from 6 months to six years to learn to speak French proficiently.

Why the huge variance in time?

Learning French depends on many factors that can impact the time it takes to become proficient in the language.

In this article, we’ll explore the factors influencing your journey to French fluency, debunk some myths, and offer practical advice based on real-world experiences.

Disclaimer* Everything I’m expressing in this article is based on my experience and observations. 

  • I’m not an English teacher or a French teacher; however, I grew up in a multilingual home and am raising my children in a multilingual home.
  • I learned to speak English when I was about five years old.
  • My daughter is perfectly bilingual, French and English from birth
  • My two sons now speak fluent French but didn’t learn French until we moved to France in 2011. They were 13 and 14 years old.
  • And finally, I have friends with multilingual children.

How Long Does It Take To Learn French fluently?

How Long Does It Take To Learn French?

The Timeframe for Learning French

I occasionally receive emails from parents planning to take a one-year family sabbatical to live in France. They almost always ask the same questions about French fluency. 

  • How fluently will I speak French if I study every day?
  • Will my child speak fluent French by the end of the year if they go to a French school?
  • How long does it take to learn French?

I always find these questions extremely difficult to answer because it’s like asking how long it will take you to train and qualify for the Olympics or play the piano.

Anything’s possible if you put your mind to it, provided you have the aptitude and put in the time to make it happen.

So yes, theoretically, you could learn to speak French fluently, but most people rarely take the steps necessary to achieve that level of proficiency.

You have to put in the work, but you also have to do the right kind of training to achieve your goals. Even then, sometimes your best isn’t good enough. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

Factors that will determine how long it will take you to become fluent in French.

Many language learning sources suggest that it’s possible to achieve a passable level of French proficiency within three to six months.

Although it is possible, there are so, so many factors that will determine how long it will take you to learn French. Some of these factors include: 

  1. Previous Language Background: If you already speak or are familiar with another Romance language, like Spanish or Italian, learning French may be easier due to similarities in vocabulary and grammar.
  2. Immersion: Being immersed in a French-speaking environment, such as living in France or actively using French daily, can accelerate your language learning considerably.
  3. Age: Younger learners, especially children, tend to pick up languages more quickly, thanks to their cognitive flexibility and adaptability, especially if they attend a French school.
  4. Motivation: Your motivation to learn French, whether out of necessity or personal interest, can significantly affect the speed of your progress.
  5. Learning Materials: The choice of textbooks, language apps, online courses, and other learning materials can affect how effectively you learn and practice.
  6. Frequency and Consistency: The regularity and consistency of your language practice sessions, such as daily practice versus sporadic study, can make a significant difference.
  7. Language Goals: Your specific language goals, whether it’s basic conversation, business proficiency, or academic fluency, can influence the time required.
  8. Individual Learning Style: Your personal learning style and preferences, whether you’re a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, can impact the speed of acquisition.
  9. Natural Language Aptitude: Some individuals may have a natural aptitude for language learning, which can speed up the process.
  10. Feedback and Correction: The availability of feedback and correction from native speakers or experienced learners can help you improve more rapidly.
  11. Learning Materials: The choice of textbooks, language apps, online courses, and other learning materials can affect how effectively you learn and practice.

Learning French: Debunking the 10,000-Hour rule Apply?

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the concept of the 10,000-hour rule in his book “Outliers.” Based on researchers’ findings, the magic number to become a true expert in a particular field is 10,000 hours.

If we apply this thinking to learning a language, it means you could theoretically learn to speak French fluently after 10k hours by studying and practicing:  

  • Extensive Listening
  • Extensive Reading
  • Extensive Speaking
  • Extensive Writing

So, studying 4 hours per day every day means it would take you 6.8 years to learn French fluently.

10,000 hours /4 hours per day = 2500 days. 

WOW, that’s nearly 6.8 years? 

Don’t worry; the 10,000-hour rule might apply to certain skills or pursuits but doesn’t translate directly to language learning, especially when considering fluency.

Becoming fluent in French or any other language is a complex and nuanced process influenced by many factors. Dedicating 10,000 hours to studying a language isn’t enough. Quality of practice and individual skills are equally important components of fluency in French.

Defining Fluency: Will I ever speak French fluently?

Another factor in learning French and getting close to speaking fluent French is the word “Fluent.”

  • What does it mean to be fluent in French?
  • Is speaking fluently Near perfect? Conversational French?
  • Do you know what speaking fluent French looks like?

If you ask 10 people these questions, you might get 10 different answers because “Fluency” is subjective.

To some, fluency is some magical point of speaking nearly perfectly or at a native speaker level. To others, talking with relative ease but lacking some vocabulary is fluent. 

For the purposes of this article, let’s define fluency as the following:

  • You can maintain a conversation
  • Communicate with other people in everyday situations
  • Interact and understand replies easily.
  • Express yourself fairly easily, even if you lack a certain vocabulary. 
  • You can figure out the context of a new word by listening to a sentence.
  • You can watch movies in French and understand most of what is being said.

You don’t have to speak fluently to communicate effectively.

While mastering a language is a goal worth pursuing, you don’t have to speak French fluently or flawlessly to communicate effectively.

You can get to the level of conversational fluency with a much smaller vocabulary and fewer hours of practice than it would take to reach complete mastery.

While a native speaker may know 15,000 to 20,000 words (on average,) you only need to learn around 500 to travel and 1,000 to hold a conversation.

How long would it take you to memorize, retain, and learn to use those words in a sentence?

Many studies show that memorizing a word can take 30 to 50 seconds.

However, you need around ten exposures to each word over a period of time for that vocabulary to enter your long-term memory. 

Spaced repetition works better than consecutive exposure. 

There are lots of tools that can help with spaced repetition, such as Brainscape online flashcards and Pimsleur, the online language learning course.

Pimsleur is really good at reinforcing this method of learning through active listening. 

My Top Pick
Learn French with Pimsleur

Monthly membership gives you access to learn 51 languages including:

French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Germany, Tagalog, Farsi, Hindi, Hebrew and many more.

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Practical Tips for Learning French Effectively

How Long Does It Take To Learn French

If you don’t practice enough, you’ll never improve

Like the athlete training for a marathon, if you don’t practice and train enough, you’ll never reach the level of fluency you want to attain.

The first year we lived in France, my son Kieran surpassed his brother Andre’s French fluency because he put more effort into studying French.

By the end of the second year, Andre surpassed Kieran’s French level, but not by studying more. Andre had more French friends and would hang out and talk to them after school almost daily.

Kieran continued studying but didn’t make as much progress as Andre by studying the traditional way, with books.

Diminishing returns: Practicing more French grammar is not the key to speaking French fluently:

There is a point of diminishing returns where learning more vocabulary and grammar doesn’t necessarily translate to speaking more fluently or understanding more.

If there’s too much emphasis on studying more, especially grammar, instead of practicing what you already know, you’ll end up knowing a bunch of grammar but have no idea how to use it or pronounce things.

When I say practice, I mean actually speaking because there’s a big difference between writing and speaking.

When you write, you can see the word spelled out and take your time. Then, you might hear that exact phrase and have no idea what the other person is saying.

It’s like looking at a recipe or a photo of a recipe vs. cooking and eating it. Speaking is wholly sensory.

You don’t need grammar books to learn French (but it doesn’t hurt)

There are so many different ways to learn a language. Believe it or not, you can achieve a reasonable degree of spoken fluency without studying grammar.

Learning a language naturally, learning whole expressions and spoonfuls of a language in context, will get you further than just learning grammar.

How do I know this? Well, think about it: Babies and children do it.

Take these two phrases:

My pencil is yellow. Yellow my pencil.

If you ask a child who has never studied grammar which of the above two phrases is correct, a native speaker will recognize automatically that the first one is the correct way but can’t tell you why.

They know intuitively which one is the correct one.

This is how my daughter can speak English even though she has lived in France all her life. She never attended English schools or studied English grammar, yet she speaks English fluently.

How did she do this?

We maintain a “one-parent-one-language” home, also known as “One Person, One Language” (OPOL). OPOL is a bilingual parenting approach where one parent or caretaker speaks to a child in one language, and the second person speaks in another language to the child.

Learning French Through Everyday Phrases: Anecdotal Insights

When I moved to Japan, I kept hearing specific phrases repeatedly.

  1. Walking into restaurants and shops, I kept hearing “Irasshaimase!” (いらっしゃいませ!).
  2. When I left, I would hear “Domo arigato gozaimasu” (どうもありがとうございます)
  3. And If someone bumped into me, “Shitsurei Shimasu” (しつれいします) 

After my first month living in Japan, I had learned many phrases without ever picking up a grammar book.

I also picked up a phrasebook and memorized chunks of phrases I thought I would need in practical situations, such as “How much does that cost?”. “Where is the bathroom?”

As I memorized the phrases, I would use them repeatedly. I learned the patterns of the language intuitively and could swap in new vocabulary to the phrases I memorized. 

If it’s not a necessity or you’re not interested in French, you won’t progress very quickly.

In general, people are more motivated to learn a language when it’s a necessity or if they are genuinely interested in communicating with others for travel, experiencing another culture or for personal reasons. 

It’s not a theory; I’ve seen this happen repeatedly, where families who move to France are afraid their children will suffer or lose their English if they put them in a French school. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. 

This is why I tell parents who plan to move to France with their children to put their children in a French school immediately. That way, they’ll have no choice but to speak French and progress much faster. 

I have another interesting example involving a friend here in France who is an Anglophone married to a French person.

My friend, whom I hope never reads this article, is married to a French man and speaks French to her husband. 

My friend speaks English to her children. However, the children respond in French, not English. As a result, they never practice speaking English and speak English poorly.

I’ve seen this happen with two friends. 

Why don’t the kids reply in English? 

Her kids don’t respond in English because it’s easier for them to respond in French and because they don’t have to.  

Now, if their mother didn’t speak or understand French, the children would have no choice but to respond in English if they wanted to be understood. 

I know this because that’s what happened to us. 

My daughter, who is bilingual and living in France, had no choice but to speak English to her father because he did not speak French when we first arrived in France. As a result, she uses both languages daily—French with me and English with her father. 

Hanging out with people who speak your language when you live in France

Foreigners who move to a foreign country sometimes stick with others who speak their native language rather than make local friends. How long do you think it will take to learn French if you don’t practice it daily?

Answer: A really long time, maybe never.

I’ve seen it, especially with retired people who move to France. 

Having an accent doesn’t mean you can’t speak French

Generally speaking, studies have shown that learning a  language before you’re 15 improves your pronunciation in that foreign language. 

On the flip side, just because you’re 30 years or older doesn’t mean you can’t gain a bit of French fluency, either. It just means you might have to work harder to become fluent, and you will likely have a thicker accent than your younger counterpart. But that’s OK. 

I know plenty of Anglophones, Spaniards, Germans, Dutch and even Vietnamese people living in France who speak grammatically perfect French with thick accents. 

Look at Antonia Banderas and Gerard Depardieu. They have accents when they speak English, and most people would find it charming. 

Please Watch French movies.

If you’re learning French on your own and have no one to practice with, or you don’t live in France, watching French movies is a great way to improve your language skills. You can also look for French films on Netflix that are dubbed in French and turn on the English subtitles.

Another option is to watch videos made by French creators on YouTube. If you enjoy yoga, you can watch French yoga videos online. Yoga instructors typically speak slowly and clearly.

French in Action is a really good video-based French learning program created in the 80s by a French language instructor from Yale. The videos are free, too.

Please Listen to French audiobooks.

Listening to French audiobooks, of a book you’ve already read in your home language, is an excellent way to get in some good listening practice.

You already know the story, and as you listen, your brain will have an easier time making connections with the meaning of each phrase in context with the story.  

Wrapping up

Your path to speaking French will be a unique journey, influenced by factors such as age, dedication, practice quality, goals, and more. So, when someone asks, ‘How long does it take to learn French?’ Remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

Instead, embrace the process, stay motivated, and enjoy the adventure of mastering this beautiful language.

Good luck / Bonne Chance!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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