How Long Does it take to Become Fluent in French?

How long does it take to become fluent in French?

This is one of the most common & complex questions people have about learning French outside of improving their French pronunciation. I receive emails about it frequently. Having spent over a decade learning French and having watched others develop their French skills as a French tutor, I can give you a great estimate.

Before tackling how long it takes to become fluent, we’ll first establish what fluency is then talk about the journey ahead of us.

This is a long article, if you’re too lazy to read then simply scroll down to the heading “How Long to Be Fluent in French.”

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.

Where does your level of French rank on this scale?

Fluent in French

Fluent in French

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 aids 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): Considered Fluent
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 as tools to advance a conversation. Fluent-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 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]. Don’t expect to know every word, but try to understand it. 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 have the ability to communicate with Natives really well.
Highly Advanced (C2): Fluent
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 don’t necessarily have to have a perfect French accent. These people 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.
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.Are you curious what your current level of French is? Here’s a website that tests that for you for free on the CEFRL scale.

So what REALLY is French fluency?

Now that you read those guidelines, how do you feel about where your level of French stands? Would it surprise you that according to those guidelines, it would take you 10,000 hours to become fluent?!

The problem is that fluency is a subjective term. By me writing out what’s fluent uses my opinion (and CEFRL standards) over someone else’s definition of the same word. To some people, fluency is an end-all, mystical point which can never be achieved. To others, being fluent in French is simply communicating with people in everyday interactions. Additionally, there are a million different factors as to why someone becomes French fluent in 2 years as opposed to someone in 10; no two personal situations are equivalent.

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. I believe French fluency should emphasize all aspects of the language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening because it is great to be well-rounded.

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?

Fluent? Get your beret ready.

Fluent? Get your béret ready.

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.

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 not many people can deny its language learning power. 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. 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, which involves talking good courses and supplementing your knowledge with native speakers or time abroad.

If you think 5 years is a really long time then maybe this book can help shorten that.

Estimates:
Proficient = A2, B1
Very Proficient/Fluent = B2, C1, or C2

These estimates assume you’re starting with no knowledge of French.

Proficient in French via immersion in France or abroad (3-6 months)
Proficient in French via self-learning/non-immersion (1-2 years, depending on intensity of studies)
Proficient in French via college courses/non-immersion (1- 2 years or more)
Proficient in French via high school courses/non-immersion (3 – 4 years minimum)
Very proficient – fluent in French via immersion (roughly 2 years)
Very proficient – fluent in French without immersion, through classes (4-6 years minimum)
Very proficient using immersion, self learning and classes (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 then 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), then fluency could take more time depending on:

  1. The age when you 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 more recent research. I give scientific sources below. For more information, read more regarding this Critical Period Hypothesis.
  2. How much time and effort you put into learning French. Motivation is a HUGE factor in learning a language. Those who learn French because they’re interested in communicating with others, traveling, or experiencing another culture are more willing to handle the rigors of learning. Those who learn French simply for college credits or for a job, typically don’t do as well. Practicing everyday versus weekly, taking formal classes, and the quality of said classes all play a role. Think about this, somebody who spends an hour a day should learn more than a person who commits an hour a week.
  3. How capable you are at learning another language. Everybody can learn another language however some people just have better methods for learning them. There are people out there who can speak four, five, or six different languages meanwhile there are some who struggle at their mother tongue. The thing you may not realize is people who speak multiple languages did not magically gain them, they put time, effort, or hard work into obtaining those extra languages. Likewise, you can gain an upper hand at learning French if you previously studied another romance language (Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, etc) because the rules and vocabulary can overlap.

I cannot stress this enough, never be discouraged to start a language due to your age. You are NEVER too young or too old to start a new language. I am 22 and two years ago I started learning Italian. Although my Italian is not stellar, it’s passable for the moment. I plan on learning languages well into my 40’s and 50’s.

How hard is it to become fluent in French?

Any new language, including French can be quite difficult at first. You go from gaining a few words and phrases (like a baby) to becoming a “French Adult”. It is a process. People get frustrated learning French due to the expectation of achieving a level equivalent to their native language. Consider this, you have hours upon hours, days upon years of practice with your mother tongue, is that the same with your French? No, well now you’re building that foundation!

Adults who begin a language want to skip over the elementary stuff because it’s boring. Yet a language is similar to a house: if you don’t have the foundation then you cannot effectively keep going. Elementary words, verbs, and nouns help you to create more complex thoughts and hold 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.

Even if you find French difficult, it doesn’t have to be boring. Use the language in everyday conversations, listen to music, watch videos and try to make French fun. I guarantee that eventually you’ll have enough vocabulary that if you don’t recognize a French word then you can use context clues to facilitate understanding. Once you get a hang of the language things become much less frustrating.

Conclusion

If you don’t have the time commitment to learning French, then you need to figure that out now. Learning shouldn’t be something that you just do and then stop; languages are constantly evolving and there’s always much more to learn! How many times has an adult told you they studied a language in high school but then forgot everything? That’s because they haven’t been using the language enough. If you’re happy with just being able to communicate in French then you can do so within two or three years without immersion. However, I’ve been learning English all my life and there’s still words out there that I don’t know… for me there is no time constraint with learning French because I’m a French learner for life and you should be one too. 

So yes, it does require some time and effort; but I’m here to help. This website provides a French Language Learning section and Online French Resources to advance in the right direction.

If you want a quicker way to jumpstart your journey to French fluency then consider getting this book.


References:
Please feel free to consult these peer-reviewed articles, or do your own research!

1: Birdsong, D. & Molis, M. (2001). On the evidence for maturational Constraints in second-language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language. 44, 235-249.

2: Hakuta, K., Bialystok, E., & Wiley, E. (2003). Critical Evidence: A test of the critical-period hypothesis.

3: Hakuta, K. (2011). Educating language minority students and affirming their equal rights: Research and practical perspectives. Educational Reseacher, 40, 163-174. doi:10.3102/0013189X11404943

4: Horwitz, E. K. (1988). The beliefs about language learning of beginning university foreign language students. The Modern Language Journal, 72(3), 283-294.

5: 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 Journal29, 653-678. doi:10.1080/15235882.2005.10162857

6: Oyama, S. (1976). A Sensitive period for the acquisition of a nonnative phonological system. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. 5, 261-283.

7: Penfield, W., & Roberts, L. (1959). Speech and brain mechanisms. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Francophile-extraodinaire, John Elkhoury works and lives in France, dates French people, and eats too much French bread. John mastered the French language and has over a decade’s worth of experience.

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