Bonjour (ou bonsoir) ! And welcome to one of my most popular articles which does a thorough analysis on how long it takes to become fluent in French. This is honestly one of the most common, and complex questions many people have about language learning outside of "How can I improve my French pronunciation?" and "How do I get over my anxiety speaking French?".
Before tackling how long it takes to become fluent, I first want to establish what is fluency? and talk about how easy/hard the journey may be ahead of you. One of my biggest beliefs about language learning is that it can be fun and anybody can become fluent in French! I hope you're ready to read, because this is a through article on the subject matter.
FrenchCrazy Fluency Scale:
This proficiency scale is simply a condensed list of items based upon the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFRL). These standards are widely accepted across Europe. The framework was designed for those who need to certify their proficiency in a language, allowing others to recognize the range of your skills easily. The proficiency levels are not requirements to become a certain level, but rather language skills that people in a certain level are able to perform.
Beginner (A1): a.k.a Tourist Class
A beginner is limited with vocabulary and grammar. Beginners may know simple greetings and phrases (Hello, how are you? what's your name? how old are you? etc...). They also know numbers, can usually tell time, and talk about the weather. Beginners can ask simple questions about other people (small talk), and express a sense of like and dislike. They may be able to talk to natives with extreme difficulty, and often with aides such as a pocket dictionary or memorization of phrases. Understanding natives is also difficult for beginners in an everyday environment. If spoken to slowly and directly (with conscious effort from a native), a beginner may fare well. Beginners can typically read "everyday signs" such as "no parking", "no smoking", "keep left", etc... However, reading or writing long texts is difficult. An immersion situation would be difficult for a beginner, but can be done.
Intermediate (A2-B1): Survivor
An intermediate language learner can construct phrases and statements. They can utilize phrases that deal with time, weather, location, desires, and dislikes with little to no difficulty. Intermediate speakers can use the present, past, and future tenses, however they still make errors. They can understand native speakers on certain topics, when spoken to directly. Intermediate learners can have simple transactions in shops, can order something to eat, and can use public transportation. They have sufficient vocabulary to deal with day to day topics, and can describe themselves (hobbies, backgrounds, personal experiences). These speakers can read familiar topics and get the gist about what occurs in a television show or film. Intermediate learners can survive in an immersion situation; however, they may still have difficulty understanding natives (and sometimes are hesitant to interact).
Advanced (B2-C1): Skilled Survivor
An advanced learner can understand normal forms of media (TV, films, radio, newspapers, music) with little trouble. They can maintain conversation with natives and even be a part of conversations within noisy environments (i.e, more than one speaker or literal background noise). These learners can construct many sentences correctly, and change with a conversation. They can use the present, past, future, conditional mood, and imperfect. Advanced learners may still have some trouble with the subjunctive, but can recognize its use. They can use phrases like "that's difficult to answer" to buy time and formulate what to say. They can also keep track of "favorite mistakes" and monitor them from time to time, or correct themselves when a Native doesn't fully understand. Advanced learners can handle reading long, constructed French articles, books, directions, etc. with little difficulty. For example, read this C1-level passage by Flaubert out loud and really test how much you know: Madame Bovary [extrait].
Advanced French learners could create short, clear narratives or compositions. They have a knack for picking up vocabulary within context, and know some specialized vocabulary for familiar topics. Advanced learners are confident with at least some aspects of their language, and can survive in an immersion situation with little to no difficulty. These speakers are technically have the ability to communicate with Natives almost effortlessly.
Fluent (C2): Please read this carefully
A fluent learner can understand all forms of media, converse with natives, be understood, and figure out context with little to no difficulty. They can talk in vibrant situations and can express themselves. They understand everyday language used by other speakers. Fluent individuals are capable of reading long texts and can express themselves in writing. A fluent speaker thrives in an immersion setting, because they essentially have the tools to communicate with those around them on a daily basis.
Native: Mother Tongue
The language is either your first, or you've been speaking it for the majority of your life. You understand vocabulary, you can make conversation effortlessly, read and write. Effortlessly does not mean you hesitate or you don't need to use a spell checker, it simply means you can carry on at a level that most other native speakers do so. You could still have an "accent" depending on where you learned the language. Nevertheless, this language is yours.
So what REALLY is French fluency?
|Je n'aurais jamais cru que vous vouliez apprendre le français.|
You need to realize what values are most important for you and your French. If you want to be able to read great works by Hugo, Voltaire, or Flaubert then you’ll need to focus on improving your reading skills, French vocabulary, and grammar. If you simply want to be able to order a meal in France or buy tickets for something, you can pick up any type of phrase book and do this type of task within minutes. Fluency does not mean that you have to have perfect pronunciation, or you can never make mistakes. It does not mean that you do not hesitate or have a native pronunciation. It does not require fancy vocabulary on topics like engineering business, and politics, or hour long discussions in French. It means you can communicate with people and understand things which are important to everyday life in France. However, my version of French fluency places emphasis on all aspects of the language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening because I believe everybody should be well-rounded.
The problem about the French teaching culture in America is that nobody is ever good enough, and French people often dislike their language being mangled. Nonetheless, it’s your standards that really matter. If you want to learn a language in 3 months and call yourself fluent, by all means do so (there are popular language blogs claiming they can). If you realize that after you take two years of French, you may not be fluent, but you have plenty of tools at your disposal to go out and use the language, then more power to you.
How long to be French fluent?
So, here's the million dollar question, how long does it take to become Fluent in French? With French learning programs now named "Instant Immersion", "5-Minute French", and "French in 10-minutes a day", it's no wonder people misconceive how long it takes to become French fluent.
I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that French fluency can be achieved in 3 months (without immersion) because if you have these sort of expectations with your language learning endeavors, you’ll become discouraged when it takes longer. Short time spans are feasible if you pack up your belongings and you are residing in a country where the target language is spoken, or you work with the language often. These situations are called Immersion more or less and not many people can deny its language learning power. However, the type of fluency which many people ultimately want to achieve is a matter of years as opposed to months. Realistically, without being in an immersion environment, I stick with the number of 5 years (talking good courses while supplementing your knowledge with native speakers or time abroad).
Proficient = A2, B1
Very Proficient/Fluent = B2, C1, C2
Become proficient in French via immersion (3-6 months)
Become proficient in French via college courses/non-immersion (1-2 years, depending)
Become proficient in French via high school courses/non-immersion (3-4 years, depending)
Become very proficient - fluent in French via immersion (~2 years)
Become very proficient - fluent in French without immersion, through classes (4-6 years at least)
Become very proficient using a combination of immersion and other learning methods (variable)
A study by Horwitz asked undergraduate students: "If someone spent one hour a day learning a language, how long would it take him/her to become fluent?". Forty percent of the students questioned believed it would take 1-2 years. Horwitz describes this as "unrealistic" and indicates that students "who anticipate fluency in two years are destined for severe disappointment and thus would seem likely candidates for dropping out." Keep in mind, this study was performed on University students in Texas, taking formal courses.
French Fluency depends on several factors.
If you live in an area where French is predominantly spoken and you can have a good handling of the language within a few months to a year this situation is called immersion. And it's nothing new in the realm of linguistics. If you aren't living in a Francophone area (such as France or Québec for example), then fluency could take quite a while to become fluent depending on these other factors:
- The age when you first started speaking French. Studies have shown that earlier introduction gives speakers a better pronunciation. However the idea that children learn languages "faster" or "better" have been disproved by research. I provide scientific sources below. For more information, read more regarding this Critical Period Hypothesis.
- How much effort and time you put into learning French. Motivation is a HUGE factor in learning a language. People who learn a language to communicate with people, travel, or experience a culture are more willing to handle the rigors of learning. Practicing everyday versus weekly... taking formal classes, quality of said classes. Think about this, somebody who spends an hour a day should learn more than a person who commits an hour a week.
- How capable you are at learning another language. Everybody can learn another language however some people just have better methods to learning them. There are people out there who can speak four, five, or six different languages... then there are those who struggle at their mother tongue. The thing you may not realize is those who speak many languages did not magically gain them, they put time, effort, and hard work into obtaining those languages.
Never be discouraged to start a language due to your age! You are NEVER too young or too old to start a new language and anybody can do it! I am 20 years old and I just started learning Italian, allowing me to speak with my Italian girlfriend (luckily it is similar to French). Some people might be starting French as their 2nd or 3rd romance language - they know the rules, the vocabulary is similar... it may be quite easy because they have the experience with understanding other languages.
How hard is it to become fluent in French?
Any new language, including French can be quite difficult at first. You literally go from gaining words and phrases (like a baby) to becoming a "French Adult" throughout the whole process. I think when people get frustrated learning French, it is due to the expectation of achieving a level to which their native language is. Adults who begin a language skip over the elementary stuff because it’s boring; however, the same elementary topics are arranged in normal language to create complex thoughts and conversations.
"When students rate the task of language learning as being relatively easy and rapidly accomplished, they are likely to become frustrated when their progress is not rapid. On the other hand, a belief that it will take an extraordinary amount of time to learn a language could be discouraging and cause them to make only minimal efforts" (Horwitz, 1988, p. 286). Overall, you may get frustrated, impatient, and tired of learning French. You may even contemplate quitting. If you do, you need to re-evaluate why you started learning French in the first place. Additionally, you need to incorporate fun interactions with the language! Obviously I'll suggest that you stick with French. Eventually you'll have enough vocabulary that if you stumble upon a French word you don't know then you can figure out the context.
I would advise that if you don't have the time commitment to learning French, then you need to figure that out now. Let me add that learning isn't something that you just do and then stop; languages are constantly evolving, and there's always so much more to learn! How many times has an adult told you they studied a language in high school but forget everything? That's because they haven't been using the language enough! If you're happy with just being able to communicate well, then it's possible to do so within two years to three years without immersion. Being totally serious, I've been learning English all my life and there's still words out there that I don't know... To me, there's no time concern with learning French because I'm a French learner for life and you should be one too.
So yes, it is hard work; but I'm here to help. Check out this article: how to become fluent in French fast. This website also provides a French Language Learning section and Online French Resources to advance in the right direction.
Please Feel Free to Consult these and/or do your own research!
Birdsong, D. & Molis, M. (2001).On the evidence for maturational Constraints in second-language
acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language. 44, 235-249.
Hakuta, K., Bialystok, E., & Wiley, E. (2003). Critical Evidence: A test of the critical-period
Hakuta, K. (2011). Educating language minority students and affirming their equal rights:
Research and practical perspectives. Educational Reseacher, 40, 163-174.
Horwitz, E. K. (1988). The beliefs about language learning of beginning university foreign language
students. The Modern Language Journal, 72(3), 283-294.
Macswan, J., & Pray, L. (2005). Learning English bilingual: Age of onset of exposure and rate of
acquisition among English language learners in a bilingual education program. Bilingual
Research Journal, 29, 653-678. doi:10.1080/15235882.2005.10162857
Oyama, S. (1976). A Sensitive period for the acquisition of a nonnative phonological system.
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Penfield, W., & Roberts, L. (1959). Speech and brain mechanisms. Princeton, NJ: Princeton