How Long Does It Take To Learn French: Why You Might Never Speak “Fluently”

How Long Does It Take To Learn French: Why You Might Never Speak “Fluently”

How long does it take to learn French? There are so many things to consider like age, where you live, how much you practice, and what you consider fluent. 

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

Disclaimer* 

Everything I’m expressing in this article is based on my own personal experience and observations

  • I’m not an English teacher or a French teacher; however, I grew up in a multilingual home, and now I’m 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 French fluently but learned French when 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?

  • How fluently will I speak French if I study every day?
  • Will my child be bilingual or fluent after living in France for a year?
  • How long does it take to learn French?

Those are a few examples of actual questions I’ve received from parents who ponder moving to France and wonder how long, if ever, it will take them or their children to achieve French fluency.

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

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.

Like a professional athlete, you have to put in the work, train like there’s no tomorrow, 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.

Learning French: And the 10,000 hour rule: 

Malcolm Gladwell invented the concept of the 10,000-hour rule, based on researchers findings who believe the magic number to become a true expert at something is 10k hours.

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

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

SO if you studied 4 hours per day everyday, that means it would take you 6.8 years to learn French fluently.

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

Don’t worry, the 10k hour rule that Gladwell coined is an average number and doesn’t really apply to language learning.

The thing about learning a language is you don’t have to speak fluently or perfectly to communicate.

The average native speaker knows about 15000 to 20000 words, but you only need to know around 500 to travel, and at least 1,000 words to carry on a conversation.

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

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

However, you need around 10 exposures to each word over a period of time for that vocabulary to enter your long term your 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.

A lot of language learning sources say it could take you anywhere from three months to six months to speak passable French.

There are also too many variables to accurately predict how long it would take you to learn French fluently.

  • If your gifted, it could take you less time to learn French.
  • If you speak or are familiar with another Romance language, it might be easier for you to learn French.
  • And if you live in France or another French speaking area, and actively use French everyday, you’ll learn French and improve exponentially.
  • Your age
  • Your motivation
  • And what you consider fluent.

What’s your definition of fluent?

Another factor in learning French and getting close to fluent is the word itself.

What is fluent?

Do you know what speaking fluent French looks like?

“Fluency” is a subjective term.

  • To some, fluency is some magical point of speaking near perfect or even being at a native speaker level (which linguists define as “being bilingual”).
  • To others being able to speak with relative ease but lacking 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 ssituation
  • 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.

Want to learn French? Some tips learning French

How Long Does It Take To Learn French

Practicing more French grammar is not the key to French fluency: 

While learning the basics is great, there comes a certain 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 actually practicing what you already know, you’ll just know 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 same phrase spoken and have no idea what the other person is saying. 

I equate it to looking at a recipe and photo of a recipe vs actually cooking it and eating it. Speaking is full sensory. 

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

There are so many different ways to learning a language. And believe it or not, you can actually achieve a good degree of spoken fluency without even 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 do it, and so do children. 

Take these two phrases:

  • My pencil is yellow
  • Yellow my pencil

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

They just know intuitively which one is the correct one. 

The best way I can explain this concept is by my own experience:

For example, my daughter, who has lived in France since she was 4 years old, almost her whole life, has never attended an English school. She learned to speak English without ever opening up an English grammar book.

How did she do this?

She speaks English with her father, watches some English TV shows or movies and occasionally reads books in English.

Is her English perfect? No. Does she have an accent when she speaks English? Yes a little but she can converse quite easily. 

Here’s another example.

When I moved to Japan, I kept hearing certain phrases over and over again.

  1. When I walked 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) 

By the end of my first week living in Japan, without ever having picked up a grammar book, I knew what these and many more phrases meant. 

I also picked up a phrasebook and memorized chunks of phrases that 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. Somehow I learned, intuitively the patterns of the language and could swap in new vocabulary to the phrases I memorized. 

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

You don’t practice enough:

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 Andre’s French fluency because he put more effort into studying French after school.

By the end of the second year, Andre surpassed Kieran’s level but Andre didn’t study more. Andre made friends and talked with his friends daily, during and after school non-stop. Kieran continued studying but didn’t make as much headway as Andre did by studying the traditional way, with books. 

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 time and time again 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. 

If anything, your child won’t make any headway speaking French if they’re surrounded by other kids who speak English and then go home and speak English and watch TV in English.  

This is why I tell parents who plan on moving to France with children, to put their children in a French school right away rather than a bilingual school. They’ll have no choice but to speak French and progress much faster. 

I have another really interesting example involving a friend here in France who is an Anglophone.

My friend, whom I hope never reads this article is married to a French man and speaks French at home. This friend of mine, speaks English to her children however, the children respond in French to her because

a) it’s easier for them and

b) they know that she can understand them.

My friend’s children can understand English however, can’t speak very well. It’s the craziest thing. 

My daughter is in a similar situation. I speak French to her and her father speaks English. But my daughter would respond to her father in English not French because her father didn’t speak French when we first moved to France. If he did understand French, she might have chosen to respond more in French rather than English and end up like my Friends children who speak English much more poorly than my daughter. 

By maintaining a bilingual home and having our daughter speak one language to one parent and the other language to the other while we live in France, is how we’ve been able to raise a perfectly bilingual child. 

You stick with your expat friends who only speak English with you (or your home language). 

Often times foreigners who move to a foreign country stick with other ex-pats who speak their language rather than making local friends. How long do you think it will take you to learn French if you don’t practice it daily? Answer; a really long time. 

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

You think having an accent means you’re not fluent

Generally speaking, studies have shown that learning a  language before your 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 most likely have a thicker accent than your younger counterpart. But that’s ok. 

I know plenty of Anglophones, Spaniards, Germans, Dutch, Haitians who speak French almost flawlessly but have thick accents when they speak French. 

Look at Antonia Banderas and Gerard Depardieu. They have accents when they speak English but they get along just fine despite their accents. Most people would find it charming. 

Please do Watch French movies

One last thing. If you don’t live in France, or you’re studying French on your own and have no one to converse with, start watching some French films or look for movies on Netflix that are dubbed in French and turn on the English subtitles. You can also head over to Youtube and watch some videos made by French creators. Another idea is to watch an exercise video in French like yoga

Please do Listen to French audiobooks

Listening to French audio books, 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 to the story, your brain somehow makes connections with the meaning of each phrase in context with the story.  

Good luck to you =  Bonne Chance!

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  1. Hi – if you enrolled your kids in a regular French school how did they make sense of French taught lessons?

    My daughter was born there but we now live elsewhere in the world. She is nearly 2 and we think we will return in a year to get her into école maternelle….

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