To answer the question “how many languages can you learn?” we’ll break it down into smaller parts. Learning some languages can take several years even when you’re studying an hour every day. Others can be learned in a few months if you know a closely related language. Therefore, we’ll first determine how many languages, on average, can be learned in a year.
Additionally, we’ll answer the question from two different points of view. This will show how the answer to this question can vary from person to person.
Introducing Our Characters
The first point of view we’ll answer the question from is that of a business professional. They work 50 hours a week on average and spend another 5 hours each week commuting. A lot of their energy is spent at work. They do not use foreign languages at work. It’s a goal of theirs to learn a foreign language but have yet to accomplish it.
Second is a professional polyglot. They make content for YouTube and work as a language coach. Someone edits their YouTube videos – saving them time. The polyglot makes one video a week, spending 5 hours planning content and making the video each week. Let’s assume they have a fair amount of notoriety online allowing them to charge high rates for coaching sessions. This enables them to dedicate fewer hours to coaching, let’s say 15 hours a week. As a result, they’re only working 20 hours a week.
The polyglot is also using their foreign languages for work. They create content in their languages and use them in coaching sessions. Learning languages is also a lifelong passion of theirs that is a part of their everyday life.
Given their life circumstances let’s determine how many hours they have each day to learn a language.
The business professional has 55 hours tied up in work and their commute. Assuming they sleep 8 hours a day, that leaves 25 hours a week Monday through Friday plus 16 hours each on Saturday and Sunday. That means they have 57 hours of free time each week outside of work. Our business professional doesn’t have children. They’re still fairly young, let’s say 24.
Our professional polyglot only has 20 hours of work each week and works from home. They also sleep 8 hours each night. Including their 16 hours on Saturday and Sunday, they have 92 free hours outside of work each week. The polyglot also doesn’t have children and is also 24.
How Many Languages Can You Learn in a Year?
Let’s take a big step towards answering “how many languages can you learn?” by first figuring out how many languages you could hypothetically learn in a year.
We need to first get a better sense of how our two example characters in our thought experiment will spend their free hours outside of work.
The business professional doesn’t have a lot of free time to spend after work during weekdays. After considering their personal obligations and time for other leisure activities, they decide to spend an hour a day during the week to study a language. They decide that they can spend 1 hour of their commute each week listening to a language learning podcast for their target language. Since language learning is just a hobby for them, their time spent studying on the weekend can vary tremendously. To make it simple, let’s say they spend 2 hours each on Saturday and Sunday studying on average. That’s 10 hours each week including the hour spent listening to their podcast.
Our professional polyglot views language learning as part of their work. They dedicate 4 hours a day to it each weekday. Their time spent studying on the weekend also varies, but on average they spend 3 hours each Saturday and Sunday on languages. This means they spend 26 hours each week, deliberately studying languages.
We know the business professional will spend 10 hours a week studying. How many languages can you learn in a year studying 10 hours a day? Initially, how quickly someone learns a language will depend on their experience. Let’s assume our business professional has zero experience with languages except for some Spanish courses in high school. They’ve been a monolingual English speaker their whole life.
Now we’re going to get into some more math using the Foreign Language Institute’s list of time needed to learn different languages for English speakers as a reference. The list includes a large number of languages from various parts of the world. According to the list, it takes native English speakers between 600 and 750 study hours to learn these languages to a “Professional Working Proficiency”. This falls on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale at a “Speaking 3/Reading 3”, what I understand to be, more or less, a B2 on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, based on the description.
Given our business professional doesn’t have any experience it will likely take him 750 hours to learn a romance language. They decide they want to study Spanish first. It will therefore take them more than a year to study Spanish, studying 10 hours a week or 520 hours a year. He will, however, reach a B2 proficiency approximately 230 study hours into his second year. From there he develops a passion for studying languages as a hobby.
The professional polyglot uses 26 hours to study every week as was estimated previously. On top of this he already speaks 6 languages. Some of them he learned as a child or teenager, others he studied while at university. They speak Dutch, English, German, Spanish, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese at a B2 level or higher. Some of these languages they use during their hours spent as a language coach and while making YouTube content. Additionally, they spend 6 hours a week maintaining and, in some cases, improving the languages that they already speak. Therefore they have 20 hours of firm study time each week. They also consume some content, like movies and series, in their languages in their leisure time.
Estimating how many languages the professional polyglot can learn in a year is more difficult. The knowledge that they have of their current languages will surely reduce the number of hours it takes them to become proficient in related languages. We’ll go more in detail on this in the next section.
To get a sense of how many languages the professional polyglot can learn in a year, let’s assume they study a language in a new language family. They now want to study Russian. According to the Foreign Language Institute’s list, this would take someone 1,100 hours to learn to a professional working proficiency.
Studying 20 hours a week means you would study 1,040 hours a year. This is nearly at 1,100 hours. Given the polyglots experience let’s assume they reach a B2 proficiency at the one-year mark.
How Many Languages Can You Learn in a Lifetime?
Asking “how many languages can you learn in a lifetime?” compared to “how many languages can you learn in a year?” is a much more complex question. Knowledge compounds, each language you learn is knowledge that will be useful for learning some other language.
Let’s start by looking at how many languages the business professional could first learn in his first 10 years. Let’s assume that besides Japanese he chooses to only learn other Category I languages, or languages that are estimated to take between 600 and 750 hours for English learners. Japanese is estimated to take 2,200 hours and is considered difficult even for its category. With that being said let’s assume it does take our business professional 2,200 hours to learn Japanese.
Many of the Category I languages are likely to have overlap, some more than others. Let’s assume that on average it takes the business professional 500 hours to learn a Category I language over the decade.
The business professional will spend 5,200 hours at 10 hours a week studying languages. Let’s assume that after 2 years they begin spending 2 hours maintaining or improving their existing languages per week. This means 4,368 study hours dedicated to languages that haven’t yet reached a B2 level. Assuming Japanese and Spanish are learned in this decade that means 1,648 hours are remaining. A little more than 3 Category I languages can also be learned in this time. Let’s say those three languages are Dutch, Italian, and French.
After 10 years of studying languages at the age of 34, our business professional now has a child. From here on out some of their time previously dedicated to learning languages will go to family time. As their children age, they will probably have more time so let’s assume that over the next 30 years, until the business professional is 64 their average free time to study languages per week is 8.
Now, however, they need to spend more time maintaining their languages. 4 hours will be dedicated to old languages and 4 to new languages. This means only 208 hours per year dedicated to new languages.
As a measure of practicality, we’re going to use the number of hours for Category III languages as a long-term average. I’m choosing 1,100 hours because a lot of languages fall into this category. It’s likely that the majority of languages not on this list would also be placed in this category. It’s a good average for all of the categories.
208 hours per year is 6,240 hours in 30 years. It’s quite few in the grand scheme of things. This comes out to 5.67 languages over that span. We’ll give the business professional 6 languages and assume that studying some Category I languages helped him to reach 6 languages.
After 40 years of studying languages the business professional now knows 12 languages including his native English.
The estimate for the professional polyglot will be much more straightforward. We’ll simply just look at the next 40 years. Let’s also assume that the professional polyglot decides not to have children.
We’re going to assume that the professional polyglot continues studying new languages 20 hours each week. Dedicating 6 hours a week to improving and maintaining others is enough. The polyglot already incorporates languages in his work. Languages are also built into his lifestyle more and more with time. He makes new friends that he chats with in his learned languages, watches movies in foreign languages, listens to podcasts in his foreign languages, etc.
20 hours a week is still 1040 hours a year. Let’s assume that the polyglot learns a language a year until they’re 64. This means on top of the 6 languages they already spoke they’ll learn 40 more by 64. At the age of 64 the professional polyglot will speak 46 languages.
Closing Comments – How Many Languages Can You Learn?
What about in retirement? How many languages can you learn in retirement? Well, this you could hash out fairly simply. Just assume that both of our example characters dedicate 20 hours a week to learning new languages. In that case they’ll learn about a language a year with the 1,100 hours per language, an assumption we made in the previous sections. If they both live to be 74 the business professional will have learned 22 languages in his lifetime, learning nearly half of them in retirement. The professional polyglot would be at 56 languages in their lifetime.
Learning languages as a retirement project, I believe, is fairly practical. Sustaining consistent language learning habits over a span of 50 years, however, likely isn’t. Life gets in the way. The professional polyglot’s life circumstances may be the most realistic that you could practically muster up. To sustain that amount of passion for languages, be it for work or not is unlikely. Many famous polyglots often dedicate an hour or less each day to learning new languages. It would take an extremely dedicated individual to consistently study languages 20 hours a week over a 50-year span.
Personally, my passion for languages wanes back and forth from indifference to deeply passionate on a regular basis. My entire life doesn’t revolve around languages, however, it’s possible to see someone whose life is language learning, and who maintains some amount of celebrity because of it, being staunchly dedicated to their craft. The business professional is likely a good representation of the majority of people that will read this article. Reaching 12 languages in their working years would still impress a lot of people. It’s not an unheard-of accomplishment but certainly an exception.