I have been teaching language skills for almost ten years now and there is a question that comes up with a frequency that surprises me every time. “How long will it take me to learn to speak your language of interest here fluently?” Using the Socratic method of teaching, I have to ask, “How well do you want to speak <enter your language of interest here>?” Generally, I run through the same few explanations of how we learn anything, and language in particular.
"I do not expect it will take anyone all their lives to speak a second language fluently, but learning is not limited to time; it is greatly improved by practice and attention."
It is a popular myth that it takes longer for adults than for children to learn a new language. A child at age 5 or even in high school has a limited vocabulary and rudimentary grammar skills. Factors to consider in developing quality language usage are immersion, necessity, and a lack of shame about making mistakes. When a child mispronounces even a simple word, conjugates a verb incorrectly, or even uses the wrong word completely, we correct her, and she tries again. Adults are not as forgiving with themselves or each other so that shame (ego) limits our practice to private areas of our own where we feel comfortable making mistakes. Focused practice is important, but it is the serendipitous and opportune use of any language skill that improves recall and makes fluency possible.
Even with higher education, certifications and many years teaching English and Spanish, teachers, writers, and linguistic and literary professionals continue to learn about the languages they speak fluently. We see words from time to time that we do not recall or recognize and have to use a dictionary. (Dictionary.com sends me a daily word and often enough it is new to me.) We enjoy being surprised by a new phrase or descriptive idiom that inspires us to test it in my usual conversation.
Moreover, what we study in theory, even when well understood, becomes our own with use. For example, when we learn to drive, we read a manual about the road, the car, the rules, and the expectations. We may watch films about what to do and what not to do. We talk to others about tricks and tactics and tales of great driving wisdom. But at some point, even after acing a written exam, we must sit behind a steering wheel and try out…make the entire process our own. Eventually, muscle memory has set in and we simply wear a seat belt, use a turn signal, or release the gas pedal upon seeing a red light. We could say that we become fluent drivers.
So how long will it take for you to learn a second language? No one could say. But do take your study all the way through fluency and mastery. Many stop just when they become comfortable enough to be conversational and never close the gap at the highest levels of the learning curve to achieve equal eloquence. Consider fluent eloquence to find confidence. Gracefully speak with intention and accuracy. Achieve clarity in relating concepts and visions.
I do not expect it will take anyone all their lives to speak a second language fluently, but learning is not limited to time; it is greatly improved by practice and attention.