When people find out I have learned French, one of the first questions they ask me is “How long does it take to learn French fluently?” Now, this is a very difficult question to answer, not least of which is What do you mean by fluent? However, there are a few guidelines that are referred to by language learners to give you a bit of an idea. In short, a new student of French can achieve a reasonable level of fluency in a year or less, if they work at it daily. Let’s break this down a little.
What Does It Mean To Learn French Fluently?
Fluently conversational is not quite the same as being “fluent”, and definitely not the same as being a “native speaker” level. Fluency is not accuracy. Fluency is used to describe how well information is conveyed – is it natural and fluid in delivery? Or is the speaker stopping, halting mid sentence frequently.
Fluency is comprised by several characteristics. The first is automaticity. Are you able to say what you want, when you want, without thinking too much about it? The second is your rate of speech. Can you deliver what you want to say at a reasonable pace? And thirdly, is it coherent – does it make sense, will others understand you? Then you could be said to have a level of fluency. I also think that prosody – the ‘song’ in the speech – and intonation work to improve fluency.
(I really like Luca Lampariello’s ideas for improving intonation and prosody – you can read about it on his blog post ‘How to sound like a native speaker – Training Intonation Patterns‘.)
Of course, to learn French fluently, there are different domains of language. You can be a fluent reader – easily reading French literature. You can learn to speak fluently. Reading aloud fluently will take another skill. And of course, writing fluently.
As I said earlier, fluency is NOT accuracy. It is NOT knowledge. You can have a low level of knowledge of French, but be very fluent with what you know.
However, when people ask the questions of ‘How long does it take to learn French fluently?’, I know that what they are really asking is ‘How long does it take to learn a lot of French?’
How Do I Know How Fluent I Am?
Two commonly quoted standards when talking about how quickly you can learn a language are the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which is the institute that trains U.S. foreign affairs workers, and the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
The CEFR is used within Europe for European languages, and is frequently used by language learners to describe their level of language. The CEFR groups learners into A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2.
B1 Level of French Fluency
At a B1 level, the framework states you will have the following competencies:
Reading: I can understand texts that consist mainly of high frequency everyday understand the description of events, feelings and wishes in personal letters.
Spoken Interaction: I can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. I can enter unprepared into conversation on topics that are familiar, of personal interest or pertinent to everyday life (e.g. family, hobbies, work, travel and current events).
Spoken Production: I can connect phrases in a simple way in order to describe experiences and events, my dreams, hopes and ambitions. I can briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans. I can narrate a story or relate the plot of a book or film and describe my reactions.
Writing: I can write simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. I can write personal letters describing experiences and impressions
You can see that by B1 level, a certain degree of fluency is developing, but it is still far from what you would describe as ‘fluent French’.
B2 Level of French Fluency
To give you an idea of what someone at a B2 level can do, the CEFR summarises that someone who has achieved this level:
- “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.”
The full matrix of CEFR competencies can be downloaded from the official website (pdf).
How Long Does It Take To Learn French Fluently?
According to the FSI, French is a Group 1 language. That is, it takes most English speakers around 480 hours to achieve a Limited Working Proficiency. That’s around an A2/B1- level according to CEFR . It will probably take another 200 hours to achieve the Minimal Professional Proficiency… around a B2 level according to CEFR.
Similarly, the CEFR suggests it will take around 600-650 hours of study to reach a B2. That is a relatively fluent conversational level.
|Level||Can be reached through … hours of study||Total of study hours |
|A1||80 to 100 h||80 to 100 h|
|A2||+ 100 to 120 h||180 to 200 h|
|B1||+ 150 to 180 h||350 to 400 h|
|B2||+ 200 to 250 h||600 to 650 h|
|C1||+ 250 to 300 h||850 to 900 h|
|C2||To reach this level, the hourly volume is variable.|
And now I hear you say “600 HOURS! I thought this website was about ‘Learning Languages Fast’!” You may even have heard that you can learn language ‘fluently’ in three months. Now you wonder why the discrepancy.
For a start, the people who suggest you can be ‘fluent’ in three months are generally only referring to speaking skills… and they probably are talking about skills to about the B1 level.
But, this website IS about learning languages fast! In my experience, learning language by yourself, customising your learning activities to suit your learning style, interests and committment, is much faster. And if you really wanted to, you could learn French to a B2 level in three months…
However, I am not going to tell you that you can learn all aspects of a language in three months. It depends, not on how many days or months you spend learning, but how many hours of those days you spend exposing yourself to the language.
If you learn French in a classroom setting, you can expect to progress one level per semester. That mean it will take you 2 years to complete the B2 level. But let’s see what it might look like if you learn at home.
Learning French Independently
Alternatively, if you learn at home by yourself, you should be able to achieve a B2 level in 1 year. That’s a B2 level, across all the language domains. To do that you will need to commit about 12.5 hours per week to different activities. It even gives you 4 weeks holiday in the year.
It’s not about dropping your whole life to learn French. Just adding a few little extras, and maybe swapping out some existing TV time for some French shows.
12.5 hours might sound a lot, but on a daily basis it could look like this:
- 2 x 15 minutes of vocab learning with Memrise, Babbel or similar app
- 30 minutes listening to Pimsleur French (maybe on a commute)
- 30 minutes learning from a text like ‘Living Language French’ (4.6/5 stars on Amazon)
- 15 minutes listening to Coffee Break French
- 30 minutes watching the beginner program French Extra! or Easy French on YouTube. Later you can progress to a travel show or some other French language YouTube channels as you improve; Netflix is another option.
Alternatively, you might keep learning from a text book until the weekend, and do about 1.5 hours each on Saturday and Sunday. Then you can keep the daily activities to things that are a little lighter, like the audios and YouTube or Netflix.
If you are only interested in conversational skills, that same amount of investment should have you at a B2 level speaking and listening within 6 months.
Your goals will impact what activities you use. The number of hours you can dedicate in a week will impact the timeframe needed to achieve your goals. To find out how to make a language plan for yourself, check out my post on how to learn French on your own.
As you can see, it really doesn’t take that long at all to learn French fluently. Of course, if you want to go all out and progress to a C level of proficiency, it will take a bit more effort. But you do not need to speak like a native speaker to be fluent in a language. It just takes a little commitment, and a few little changes in your routine, and you will quickly see improvement.