How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language as a High School Student
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How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language as a High School Student

The U.S. State Department says it can take English speakers 24 to 88 weeks to learn another language. That estimate is based on 75 years of experience teaching languages to U.S. diplomats.

On average, the American government found that languages similar to English are learned the fastest. This includes Spanish and French. On the other end of the spectrum, the State Department categorizes a few languages as “super hard” to learn. Those languages are:

  • Arabic
  • Chinese – Cantonese
  • Chinese – Mandarin
  • Japanese
  • Korean
Rustic Pathways students learn about the language and culture in South Korea during the Seoul Searching program.

Rustic Pathways students learn about the language and culture in South Korea during the Seoul Searching program.

The list does not include languages with a small number of speakers. For example, it would be difficult to learn the Hadzabe language that uses clicks for consonants. It’s spoken by the nomadic Hadzabe hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania and only has about 1,000 speakers, so getting access to lessons would be challenging.

But for major languages, the State Department chart is a good place to start. Of course, the time needed to learn a language depends on many variables. This includes the:

  • Language learners’ linguistic ability
  • Tools they use to learn
  • How much time they dedicate to learning

As with many things in life, hard work pays off. But there are certain tools that are better than others.

You can learn all about language learning in these sections:

What is the Best Way to Learn a Language as a High School Student

How Travel Helps Teens Learn a Language

What Are the Levels of Foreign Language Proficiency

How Do I Know My Level of Language Proficiency

How Hard is it Realistically for a Teen to Master their Target Language

How Rustic Pathways Staff Members Learned Japanese, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese

What is the Best Way to Learn a Language as a High School Student?

Most high school students start language learning in the classroom. But it doesn’t take long to realize the limitations of classroom learning. The best way to become multilingual is to immerse yourself in the language. For starters, you can watch movies and television shows made in another country. You also can look for U.S. shows that have audio available in another language.

On many streaming services, you can set your language based on your preference. So if you want to learn Spanish, make that choice. You also can do this in some video games.

Deeper immersion comes from interacting with other people in conservations. This may be possible if you have a friend or family member who speaks the language you want to learn.

You also can try language exchange services to speak with someone online. This includes options like Talk Abroad and Hello Talk. These programs allow you to connect with native speakers and practice your skills.

This helps, but the best bet is travel. Personal interaction on the road is the ideal teacher.

How Travel Helps Teens Learn a Language

After learning some basics in a high school classroom, travel will give you many opportunities for language immersion. Student travel programs take you to places where you’ll be surrounded by people conversing in the language you want to learn.

You can dip your toe in the process through greetings and simple questions. You also can use gestures and pay attention to verbal responses. Context clues can help develop your vocabulary and listening skills.

Communicating through smiles despite language barriers in India.

From there, you can look for opportunities for conversations and language swaps. Sometimes you’ll find someone – even a child or teen – who wants to practice speaking English. If you’re helpful, they may be willing to also have a conversation in their native language to make it a win-win learning experience.

While engaging in these conversations, here are few things that may help:

Pay attention to sentence order: One language challenge may be the way sentences are ordered. Mentally you need to adjust if the order is different from your native tongue. English, Chinese and French generally have subject-verb-object order. But there are languages like Japanese that follow subject-object-verb order. And in Spanish the sentence order can change where the emphasis is, so changing the order can alter the meaning.

Be ready for speed: Unlike a high school classroom, people speak quickly in real life. You can get dizzy at first when you realize how fast people speak in their native language. This is particularly true for Japanese, Spanish and French, which are considered the fastest languages in the world. It’s estimated the Japanese speak 7.84 syllables/second.

Recognize language variations: Many languages have different dialects and accents. A common phrase used in one country may not be utilized in another.

In Costa Rica, “pura vida” is a response for pretty much anything. In the Dominican Republic, “pana” is friend instead of “amigo,” so you’ll hear, “mi pana” instead of “mi amigo.” Or “Qué lo qué?” is “what’s up,” but literally translates to “what the what.” “Primo” means cousin, but is often used when talking to a stranger.

And that’s just a few examples. Expect language variations from country to country and even town to town.

Be careful with humor: Keep in mind sarcasm often does not translate. So be careful when you’re trying to be funny.

Set your expectations: When immersed in another culture, it can be surprising how much you feel like a beginner even if you’ve had a few years of language learning. Keep in mind it’s a long learning process. Every step you take helps.

Use other tools: There are many apps that can help you before traveling and while on the road. A number of language learning apps like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo are well known. However, sometimes an app designed for a specific language works better. This may include ones like the Spanish Dictionary or Talk to Me in Korean.

Once you start practicing your target language, you may want to measure your level of foreign language proficiency.

What are the Levels of Foreign Language Proficiency?

In the United States, two proficiency standards for foreign languages are commonly used. Both of these measure language mastery. The first one is the Interagency Language Roundtable (IRL) scale. It’s the standard measure used for jobs in the federal government.

The second one is the scale by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). In Europe there’s another scale from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).  

In all three cases, you’re more likely to see the acronyms than the long names. The ILR includes six levels of abilities that are further broken down in the areas of:

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Speaking

For each of these skills, you can be graded on six general levels in your target language. They are:

  • 0No Proficiency – This grading is for languages where you have no knowledge or may just know a few words, like hola in Spanish.
  • 1Elementary proficiency – This level may be reached if you learn some common questions or phrases that are useful while traveling. People at this level also generally know the basic sentence structure for the language they are learning.
  • 2Limited working proficiency – At this level you can have some conversations and understand basic questions and commands.
  • 3General professional proficiency – At this point, you would understand a language well enough to use it on a job.
  • 4Advanced professional proficiency – To reach this level you need a solid understanding of the language. You can comfortably communicate in the language if you are a level 4. Some employers will ask for this level of language knowledge for certain jobs.
  • 5Functionally native proficiency – This is full fluency with a nonexistent or barely noticeable accent. This is for people’s native language or for people who have obtained full fluency.

Within each of these categories, there is also the possibility of adding a +. So as you advance in your language learning, you could move from elementary proficiency to elementary proficiency, plus. This applies for the other levels as well, except for level 5.

The ACTFL scale is similar. It’s levels are labeled:

  • Novice
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced
  • Superior
  • Distinguished

Like the IRL scale, it has ranges with those categories, so you can be a novice level 0, 0+ or 1. Likewise, the ACTFL looks at the areas of reading, writing, speaking and listening. It gives general descriptions of abilities required for each level.

As an example, the general speaking guideline for the superior range says in part:

“Speakers at the Superior level are able to communicate with accuracy and fluency in order to participate fully and effectively in conversations on a variety of topics in formal and informal settings from both concrete and abstract perspectives.”

You can check out some of the guidelines for these levels in various languages on the ACTFL website.

The European model has similar categories. The rankings are labeled differently. If you hear someone say they are at a B1 level, they are using the CEFR scale. The range for this scale are listed in this chart on the Council of Europe website:

PROFICIENT USER C2 Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.
C1 Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
INDEPENDENT USER B2 Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
B1 Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken.  Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.
BASIC USER A2 Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.  Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.
A1 Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

How Do I Know My Level of Language Proficiency?

There are many online tests that can be used to determine your language proficiency. You can start by reading the descriptions of each language ability level. If you’re still unsure, you can choose an ACTFL assessment for one of the 100+ different languages.

There also are some tests for specific languages. This includes the Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language. For most people, the ACTFL test is the best option as an assessment.

How Hard is it Realistically for a Teen to Master Their Target Language

Many studies show that children learn languages the easiest. After age 12, it becomes harder, but language learning can still blossom at this age.

Dr. Eleonore Smalle studies the role of memory in language learning at Ghent University in Belgium. During an interview with the United Nations, she noted how age differences affect language learning.

“Our research shows that children outclass adults in their ability to unconsciously learn new language rules, which means through passive exposure without awareness as to what they are learning. In contrast, adults outperform children in their ability to learn under awareness,” Smalle said.

Rustic Pathways students take language classes in Costa Rica.

Rustic Pathways students take language classes in Costa Rica. Credit: Rustic Pathways

Smalle notes that teens and adults are more likely to have issues with memory retention when tackling their target language. She says teens may have trouble when “they try to adopt the linguistic rules that they already know, which sometimes contradict the new ones.” So differences in rules for sentence order, verb conjugation and other grammar issues can make language learning harder for teens.

Children are better able to absorb new language rules in their daily life, which leads to long term memory retention. Smalle says full language immersion is the best way for teens and adults to learn a language and solidify its usage in their long term memory.

This is the path many staff members and students with Rustic Pathways have taken.

How Rustic Pathways Staff Members Learned Japanese, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese

Rustic Pathways’ Director of Admissions Scott Ingram learned Japanese as a young adult after moving to Japan to teach English. He took three years of Japanese in school, but found that didn’t help him as much as he’d hoped.

“I realized my textbook learning wildly unprepared me for actually speaking,” Ingram said. “When I was with new friends, I had no idea what anyone was saying. I was out of depth with the actual spoken language.”

Over time he picked up more of the language by taking several concrete actions. His steps for learning a language included:

  • Learning to say, “Can you repeat that more slowly.”
  • Building his vocabulary. If you know 1000 nouns, you can gesture through the verbs and start to pick up basic grammar structure
  • Watching shows in his target language
  • Reading novels or comic books
  • Writing Japanese characters to help connect them with the sounds

Admissions Counselor Emily Green followed similar steps when she learned Spanish. She started taking Spanish classes in middle school, but she really began learning the language when she traveled.

Green took a gap year after high school and spent three months living with host families in Bolivia and Peru. In college, she studied abroad in Argentina and did coursework in Nicaragua and Mexico. Then she moved to Costa Rica for a number of years. Along the way, she says she faced some mental barriers with her language learning.

“Having the confidence to put yourself out there in a new language can be difficult,” Green said. “It’s frustrating to feel like you aren’t understanding or someone isn’t understanding you.”

Over time her connections with people paid off. She doesn’t like to say she is fluent, but Green can now comfortably navigate life in Spanish.

Director of Education Anna Beckerman followed a similar path. However, she began her language immersion earlier. She studied Mandarin Chinese for four years before attending high school in Beijing for a yearlong language immersion program. Like Ingram she was surprised how lost she was when she first arrived.

“I felt like I was starting from zero. The language, tones, structure, and characters were familiar, which helped a lot, but I did not feel capable to communicate beyond “hello” or “goodbye”. It took about a month to gain confidence in communicating basic needs,” Beckerman said.

Her skills improved when she took a university course on media in China. During the class, the students watched television news in Chinese, read Chinese newspapers, and wrote our own news articles in Chinese.

She says this forced her to expand my vocabulary from the pedestrian topics used in everyday life to the broad expanse of terms required to cover global news. she knew she made progress. That sparked one treasured moment in language learning – when you begin dreaming in another language.

“It was amazing to realize my subconscious brain was able to think in a second language,” Beckerman said.

She says she really knew she was able to navigate life in Mandarin during a pivotal moment at a hardware store in Beijing.

“I had no idea what the part I needed was called. I probably didn’t know the English word for it either,” Beckerman said. “But I remember explaining to the store clerk what it looked like, what I would use it for, and together we figured out what I needed.”

 Regardless of your language ability, students who travel with Rustic Pathways are often amazed at how they can communicate with gestures and body language. DeAndra Forde is among those who found this when she traveled with Rustic Pathways to Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.

“Although my Spanish at the time was intermediate-basic, that didn’t matter,” Forde said. “Everyone on that program was able to connect, and it just further showed me that a language barrier isn’t a barrier to create fruitful and impactful relationships.”

So even if you aren’t comfortable with a language, you’ll benefit from your travel experiences in so many ways. If you’re ready to get packing, check out our summer student travel programs.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Lead Editor

Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.