How long will it take me to learn Italian?

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A question I often get asked is, “How long will it take me to learn Italian?”

Well, it took ME nearly 15 years, and there are still lots of times when I can’t say or write what I’d like to, or fail to understand what I hear or read. So, perhaps I’m not the best person to ask!

But that doesn’t mean it would take YOU nearly so long. In fact, at our language school in Bologna we often see students make excellent progress in just a few months!

Could you learn Italian in months? Or could it take much longer? Let’s consider the factors which could affect the speed at which you learn…

First, a few myths busted!

  • It’s NOT TRUE that children learn faster or better than adults, so if you’re not a pre-schooler, that’s just fine!
  • It’s also NOT TRUE that you have to have a great teacher or go to an expensive school. Think of the multi-lingual camel drivers you may have met while visiting the pyramids… do you think they had great teachers?
  • It’s also NOT TRUE that living in the country where the language is spoken necessarily speeds things up. Lots of people in the United States have lived there for years but don’t speak English, for example. And I spent years living in Italy before picking up more than the very basics.

But there are factors that help some lucky people make rapid progress.

Things that will speed up your learning

  • Being a native Spanish or French speaker is a huge bonus for learning Italian as the languages are SO similar. Now I know Italian, I can pick up a book in French and more or less read it. I often have conversations with people who are speaking Spanish (don’t know a word of the language) but who I can understand with little difficulty.
  • Time to study. This is a big one. Realistically, if you have a full-time job and a family, that’s likely to be a brake on your progress. Whereas if you’re young, or on a sabatical, you’ll have plenty of time to do your homework and can spend your days hanging around with classmates practising what you learn. Which is a help.
  • Having studied a foreign language before. It’s not that you have to be “good at languages”, or that it’s particularly hard to learn Italian. But like a lot of things, if you’ve never done anything similar before, there’s a steeper learning curve. So, if you’ve already successfully learnt to speak another foreign language, well Italian should be easy and quick!

Things that can slow you down

  • Being a native speaker of a language that really isn’t similar to Italian…. A native English speaker, or a speaker of any Asian language, is going to have a lot harder time than a Spanish or French native speaker. That sucks, but it’s true.
  • Getting fed-up quickly. In your normal life you are competent at lots of stuff (your job, driving a car, using a computer, etc.), so probably not used to feeling like you know nothing at all. But when you start learning a foreign language you’ll encounter lots of difficulties,  which can be psychologically hard: you literally have to start at the beginning. If you are a relaxed, happy-go-lucky person, you should be fine with that. If you’re a control freak who hates looking stupid, well this might not be for you.
  • Bad learning choices. There’s no right way to learn a foreign language, but there are lots of wrong ways. When studying anything it’s easy to waste time and get nowhere fast, and with something as complex as a foreign language, the probability that you’ll study in a less than optimum way is quite high, unless you have had plenty of experience with other foreign languages. Message? Choose a competent school to study at.

So, how long will it take ME to learn Italian?

Well, assuming you’re motivated and have time to study, this should be a relatively easy thing to work out.

First, what level of competence in Italian do you REALLY want to achieve?

There are six “levels” (see article here) and you’ll need between 80 and 120 hours of lessons (plus homework, etc.) to pass from one to the next.

On a typical “full-time” Italian course, you’ll study for 4 hours each morning, so that’s 20 hours a week. Which means you’d need between four and six weeks to complete a level, depending on how Spanish you are (only joking!)

To get residence in Italy these days an A2 level is required, which would mean 8-12 weeks of study if you started as a complete beginner.

To get a job, say in an office where you’d need to write in Italian, you’d need to be very good, which means reaching C2 (the sixth and final one). You can expect to need between 24 and 36 weeks of lessons to get that far.

So, that’s six to eight months to learn Italian from zero to working-in-an-office level. If you have the time and the motivation.

Of course, if you just want to able to have a reasonable conversation and understand what most people say to you, that will be achievable in much less time.

And even a couple of weeks can give you a great feeling of progress, and a month or two will really transform your ability to comunicate in Italian.

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  1. What you say is so true Daniel. I have been learning Italian for a few years now, but in a very haphazard way, interspersed with working, other study courses and learning German. If I had been able to just study Italian, I would be at a much higher level than I am now. But even studying German (NOT a similar language!) helps as you have to think about grammar and how to structure what you are saying. But I’m still plodding on, because it’s so great to be able to communicate even a little with Italians when I’m on holiday.

    • Hi Dot,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      It think “plodding on” has got a lot to do with eventual success in language learning. It’s not so hard to dedicate a week or two now and again, but to actually make the language you want to learn a regular part of your life, well, that’s both a hard thing to do, but also the key to success.

      For example, when I moved to Italy I made a deal with myself: I would never buy books or newspapers in English, that way I knew that I would have to learn, sooner or later, and that if/when I did, I would have a whole new world open to me. It took some discipline, but it did actually work! Now I’m as happy reading in Italian as in English (well, almost.)

      Sometimes I suggest to my students, just replace one thing in your life, such as reading the newspaper over breakfast, with an equivalent activity in Italian (look at an Italian paper on your tablet instead of your usual English paper). Even just for a few minutes a day. It doesn’t have to be a big sacrifice, but do it always, make it a habit. And in the end, as with most investments, there will be a return!

  2. Great stuff. There is another myth of the ‘gifted linguist’. Most people in Sweden and Holland understand English. They can’t *all* be gifted. You either *have to* learn a foreign language (say you’re stuck in a foreign country and no-one speaks English. How will you eat? Find a room to sleep in?) or just really enjoy languages. I’ve been self-teaching Italian for 2 1/2 years and I can read Italian newspapers now, although I have trouble listening to it. I still have never spoken Italian! Work in progress…. As for French. Yes, learning it before was useful, but never learn two similar languages at the same time as it will confuse you (‘Le” means so many things in Italian as well as being different in French). My other pet project is German.

    • Thanks for your post Xavier.
      Actually “most people in Sweden and Holland [who] understand English” CAN all be gifted, in the sense that they are gifted with the prize of living in a small country, meaning that it’s not economical to dub foreign TV programmes, meaning that they are exposed to English on TV from an early age.
      That’s certainly true in Sweden, Greece and other countries with a population of 10 million or below (don’t know about Holland).
      I once went to a presentation by an international exam board (for English teachers, in Italy) where the point was made that Greek high school leavers have better English than Italian high school leavers for precisely this reason. Italians watch TV dubbed into Italian, Greeks watch in the original langauge.