On Estimating Language Difficulty and Length of Study

If you’ve ever wondered how different languages stack up in terms of relative difficulty, you might have come across this infographic put out by Voxy:


The majority of the data for this infographic comes from research and data from The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), a training school of the U.S. State Department.  While these findings are interesting, we should be understand the limitations of the data and how they apply to our own situation:

  • The students at FSI are future diplomats or government interpreters who are paid to study full-time.  At FSI, we have found that it requires at least four class hours a day – usually more – for five days a week, plus three or more additional hours a day of independent study (Jackson, F. H., & Kaplan, M. A. ,2001).   Therefore the intensity and motivation of study can be quite different from our own learning context.
  • This data is based on estimates taken from native English speakers.  This means we should be careful in making inferences about non-native speakers of English learning one of these languages.
  • The estimated length of time is to attain ILR Level 3 (which is described as “professional working proficiency”), but not the time it takes to reach native or bilingual proficiency, ILR Level 5.
  • The mean age of FSI students is 41, most of whom go on to achieve or exceed their learning goals.  This is quite encouraging for us who feel we might have missed the window of opportunity of language learning after our teenage years.

Jackson, F. H., & Kaplan, M. A. (2001). Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching. In J. E. Alatis & A.-H. Tan (Eds.), Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1999: Language in Our Time (pp. 71–87). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.