How Long does it take to get “Conversational ” in a Language?


A conversation always requires two people ( Obviously). Having a conversation that’s in a language other than your own, can result to be difficult, but it’s our main goal, isn’t it?

In order to be able to maintain a conversation in a foreign language you need a pretty high level of comprehension, to be able to understand what is being said to us. This means, if we want to have conversations , we must prepare ourselves.

Input is important

I believe that input is a very important part of learning a new language. I learned so much, simply by huge amounts of listening and reading. I’ve always loved reading, so this is a great way for me to learn and study a language more profoundly. I have always done so, ever since I was a little girl.

I remember when I first went to school in Spain. I went to a very old school in a small, typically spanish town. Aside from the fact that the first 3 months I didn’t speak any spanish at all , I didn’t speak english either and had no way of communicating with anyone. Not with teachers, and not with other students either. This situation gave me two possible options ; 1. Learn spanish or 2. Learn english. I decided english seemed easier to learn, so I started making friends with kids that spoke english natively. I quickly adapted myself as I was very young, and I didn’t have another choice but to learn. Because I was given no other choice than to learn one language or another, I learned them both at the same time, in different ways.

Now what can I tell you about that experience? Well, I learned english by playing with english kids and just trying to figure stuff out by myself. No study books, no courses, no teacher or professional help. Just me and a bunch of english speaking children. I played with them at school, in the park, at the beach, and learned so much more in a couple weeks, than I’d learned spanish in half a year. I spoke fluently English within 3 months.

Spanish, on the other hand, was taught to me thru courses they made me take in school. I remember the study books where thick, the word lists were and none of it made any sense to me. They tried to teach me grammar , while I didn’t even have the basic spanish skills to understand the teacher, or what she was explaining to me for that matter.  It took me very long to learn spanish, at least 6 months before I could somewhat conversate. I had spanish courses every day, all day long. The problem was I didn’t understand what they were trying to teach me, because I didn’t speak the language. I have to say, the teachers weren’t very good either. I would sit there looking confused because I didn’t understand, and instead of trying a different method, they would just get frustrated and mad. Not the best way to teach a child.   



So in my experience, the more natural the way of learning a language is, the quicker you’ll pick it up. This could just be personal preference, but generally studies have shown that learning a language thru speaking, listening and reading is far more effective than learning grammar, spelling rules and so on.

People often ask me how long it takes to learn a language, how long until you can have a conversation? How long until i’m fluent? It all depends on several things, and I think most of all it depends on your determination to want to learn.

You may have limited vocabulary in a language, but if you spend a week abroad, you’ll notice how you start picking up certain words and sentences that you may need when you’re on vacation. Like for example ordering in a restaurant, doing shopping at a supermarket, saying thank you and your welcome, and other similar phrases. a short vacation to a country where they use the language you want to learn, can help so much more than you might think. Of course, how well you do speaking and understanding the language abroad, all depends on your preparations.

Unless you have prepared yourself with a lot of listening, reading and speaking, you may have a hard time understanding what is being said to you, and explaining what you’re trying to say. When you go back home, it might seem that you have lost whatever conversational ability you had. Comparing to the way the people of that country speak, it can even be unmotivating, but don’t let it be! Take it as an inspiration instead. Use it as fuel to work towards mastering that language. And if you went abroad, and realised you didn’t understand a single word, then atleast now you’ve gained a new experience, and you know to prepare better for next time.

Failure and then success

As I briefly explained earlier in this post, when I first started learning spanish, I didn’t take the right approach. For the first 5 years of living abroad, my spanish was enough to get thru school, understand and conversate, but it was far from fluent and sounded very unnatural.

When I turned 16 I started working as a dental assistant for a german dentist. The reason he hired me were my languages, despite the fact that my spanish wasn’t native. In the 3 years I worked there, I learned more spanish than I ever learned at school. This was natural spanish, the way monolingual natives speak it. I also had 2 hours break time every day, and as the dental office was in the town center, I used those 2 hours to wander around town, speak to locals and learn the culture of the county i’d been living in for 5 years already.

I perfected my spanish and now I am often mistaken for a local. I love this, and for me, there is no greater reward for my learning effort than someone mistaking me for a native speaker.

When can I start?

It depends on your situation, opportunity, your need to learn that language and your motivation to do so. Conversations are great opportunities to practise what you’ve learned so far, but can be very challenging if your level in the language is rather low.  But no worries, try anyway! And keep trying, stay persistent and keep pushing yourself, over time you’ll come to find out that you’re understanding more and more with each conversation you have. Teachers and other language specialist have several debates on whether it’s a good idea to start conversing at an early stage of language learning or not, and there are several different opinion about the topic, but in my opinion, and what i’ve come to learn thru my experience, is that there is no better way to learn than to throw yourself out there, don’t be scared. Just try and have fun while doing so.

To speak a language good, we’ll eventually have to speak it a lot. However, how much we speak at what stage of our learning journey is entirely up to us. It depends on our needs, opportunities and inclinations. When we start doesn’t have any influence on how well we’ll eventually speak the language. It is however proven that children at young ages have much less difficulty picking up new languages that adults do. They have natural curiosity and that drives them to learn effortlessly.


Learn to understand first

Conversation is by definition two-way. It’s not just about you saying something and then being lost when the person replies. Conversation implies a more or less balanced exchange, where the other person doesn’t have to make too many allowances for you, and where you don’t give the impression of not understanding.

How much preparation time?

How much deliberate input learning is necessary? If I know Spanish and I want to be comfortably conversational in Portuguese and I have about an hour a day to spend, then I think six months is enough. If I have more than an hour, maybe two or three hours a day, I could reduce that down to two or three months. That is in the case of going from Spanish to Portuguese. Obviously the more similar the new language is to a language you already know, the less time it will take. I speak 4 languages for now, one of being german. Right now I am starting to learn Swedish and Norwegian. Ever since I first started regularly listening to swedish and norwegian I noticed it’s almost like a combination out of german and english. This makes it all the easier for me and I can almost understand everything that’s being said, now I just have to learn to speak it. Challenge accepted!



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