FSI's Experience with Language Learning

The Foreign Service Institute's School of Language Studies (SLS) offers instruction in over 65 languages, with course length and curricula varying to accommodate a range of language proficiencies, from basic to advanced. The following language learning timelines reflect 70 years of experience in teaching languages to U.S. diplomats, and illustrate the time usually required for a student to reach “Professional Working Proficiency” in the language, or a score of “Speaking-3/Reading-3” on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale (full scale available here). These timelines are based on what FSI has observed as the average length of time for a student to achieve proficiency, though the actual time can vary based on a number of factors, including the language learner's natural ability, prior linguistic experience, and time spent in the classroom.

Category I Languages: 24-30 weeks (600-750 class hours)

"World languages" - Languages more similar to English.

Danish (24 weeks)

Dutch (24 weeks)

French (30 weeks)

Italian (24 weeks)

Norwegian (24 weeks)

Portuguese (24 weeks)

Romanian (24 weeks)

Spanish (24 weeks)

Swedish (24 weeks)

Category II Languages: Approximately 36 weeks (900 class hours)

German

Haitian Creole

Indonesian

Malay

Swahili

Category III Languages: Approximately 44 weeks (1100 class hours)

"Hard languages" - Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English. This list is not exhaustive.

Albanian

Amharic

Armenian

Azerbaijani

Bengali

Bulgarian

Burmese

Czech

Dari

Estonian

Farsi

Finnish

Georgian

Greek

Hausa

Hebrew

Hindi

Hungarian

Icelandic

Kazakh

Khmer

Kurdish

Kyrgyz

Lao

Latvian

Lithuanian

Macedonian

Mongolian

Nepali

Polish

Russian

Serbo-Croatian

Sinhala

Slovak

Slovenian

Somali

Tagalog

Tajiki

Tamil

Telugu

Thai

Tibetan

Turkish

Turkmen

Ukrainian

Urdu

Uzbek

Vietnamese

Category IV Languages: 88 weeks (2200 class hours)

"Super-hard languages" - Languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers.

Arabic

Chinese – Cantonese

Chinese – Mandarin

Japanese

Korean

Note: All estimates relating to the length of time needed to learn these languages to a Speaking 3/Reading 3 (S3/R3) proficiency level assume that the student is a native speaker of English with no prior knowledge of the language to be learned. It is also assumed that the student has above average aptitude for classroom learning of foreign languages; lower aptitude language learners will typically take longer. Although languages are grouped into general "categories" of difficulty for native English speakers, within each category some languages are more difficult than others.