How long does it take to learn French fluently?

After 10 years of teaching French to enthusiastic students from all over the world, I've heard every version of the question:

'Combien de temps faut-il pour apprendre le français couramment?' - How long does it take to learn French fluently?

Of course, the question is understandable. After all, who wants to go on a journey without knowing how long it would take to reach their destination?

In a word, you can reach proficiency in 9-12 months provided you utilise the best strategies and are persistent in your approach.

In this short piece, I'll walk you through the realities of achieving French fluency step by step. You'll get insider knowledge from my years of experience teaching hundreds of people how to speak this highly expressive language.

My objective is to establish realistic timescales so that you can create attainable goals and stay motivated over weeks, months, and years of practising French. Allons-y!

What Does It Mean to Be Fluent in French?

Let's start by clarifying what it means to be fluent in French. If you're like most individuals, the goal is to achieve conversational fluency. Understanding French terminology and constructing grammatically sound phrases is only half of the journey.

Conversational fluency is the ability to engage in typical conversations with French native speakers, tell stories, and chat for extended periods of time without straining for every word.

Achieving this level is entirely possible with diligent practice over time. However, your development will be impacted by critical factors such as:

  • Your previous language experience and natural ability
  • Level of effort: how much time you commit every day to actively using French
  • What strategies you use (some are more successful than others)
  • What resources are available (technology, travel possibilities, etc.)

So, realistically, how long does it take to learn fluent French?

Different sources will provide you with different answers. One thing we can do straightaway is throw out claims of becoming proficient in days or weeks. These claims are made by dishonest book or course marketers, and they’re completely unrealistic.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) gives the following milestones and time estimates.

  • A1 Level (Beginner): 70–80 hours
  • A2 Level (Elementary): 150–180 hours
  • B1 Level (Intermediate): 300 to 360 hours
  • B2 Level (Upper-Intermediate): 540 to 620 hours

So, according to the CEFR, conversational fluency develops at the B2 level after 540-620 hours of deliberate practice. This goal is attainable in 12-24 months with consistent hard work.

Another institution, the United States Foreign Service Institute (FSI), estimates that fluency requires 600 or more classroom hours.

However, in my experience, the FSI significantly overestimates the work required for conversational fluency.

Why? Because classroom learning typically relies on inefficient passive approaches such as lectures. I've discovered in my years of teaching students that active speaking helps you retain far more vocabulary than passive listening, and language learning studies back me up.

If you prioritise active learning through frequent speaking practice with a private teacher or a one-on-one conversation exchange, you can reach your goals much faster.

The secret is to strike a balance between rigorous, vigorous practice and steady everyday practices. Invest one hour every day, and you'll establish a pattern that reduces unnecessary effort.

Using this approach, I've helped students achieve fluency in 9-12 months.

Here’s a basic plan of what you can realistically achieve in this time frame.

Months 1-3: Survival French – Naviguer Dans Les Bases

Your major focus during the first 90 days of studying French should be on developing a survival vocabulary. Consider months 1-3 to be the time when you gather the necessary bricks for sentence construction.

Prioritise terms and phrases that are commonly used and useful. For example:

  • Greetings: Bonjour! Salut!
  • Family words: mère, père, frère, amis
  • Directions: ici, là, à droite, en face
  • Transactions: Combien ça coûte? Merci! De rien.

At this point, don't try to understand complex grammar. Learning valuable and common vocabulary will help you to make rapid progress. You can find the 5,000 most common French words and learn them efficiently using flashcards on Langua (for free).

Another thing that can really help is learning vocabulary through real-world discussions. Listen carefully and take note of particular terms you recognise. Mimic natural speakers to nail down your pronunciation from the first words you speak.

Within three months, most of my students have developed enough vocabulary to engage in short conversations about basic details such as where they are from and what they do, as well as to handle critical activities such as ordering food (I told you this was about survival!).

Don't worry if you can't talk in full French phrases yet. You're slowly but steadily assembling the building blocks for fluency.

Months 4-6: Consolidating Progress - Consolidant les Progrès

The following phase focuses on consolidating and expanding on your previous progress. During months 4-6, students often pick between two ways based on their own learning preferences.

  1. Studying the basics of French grammar.
  2. Learning through comprehensible input.

If you enjoy structure and don't mind studying grammatical rules, now is an excellent time to grasp the fundamentals. However, there is another method that is gaining popularity: learning through comprehensible input.

'Input' refers to doing listening and reading exercises. 'Comprehensible input' refers to material that’s challenging but nonetheless understandable. Knowing what’s being discussed allows you to estimate the meaning of words and phrases based on the bits you comprehend.

Dr. Stephen Krashen, a linguistics researcher, popularised this method to language acquisition, arguing that input should be the major emphasis and that real material will teach you grammar and vocabulary.

Listening to podcasts and watching videos while reviewing a transcript for new terminology are examples of comprehensible input activities. You may also find it beneficial to study new terms in further depth by looking at translations and creating flashcards to help you remember them. Langua provides podcasts, videos and flashcards, as well as the option to chat in French with an AI conversational partner.

Regardless of the strategy you use, during month six, give yourself a pat on the back for getting closer to conversational fluency. Be patient with your limits and simply enjoy how far you've come in just half a year of learning French.

Months 7-11: Immerse yourself in French - Plongez-vous en français

After around six months of continuous foundational study, my most driven students advance to the next level by immersing themselves in French language and culture more deeply.

The single most important step you can take at this point is to spend 1-3 months entirely immersed in a French-speaking nation.

Of course, this is not feasible for everyone, but the more time you spend with fluent French speakers, the better.

Listen for patterns by chatting with native speakers for several hours each day. Taking online French classes with a tutor like myself is another option (whatever stage you're at).

Learn vocabulary not just from courses, but also from authentic French media such as TV episodes, music, café menus, and street signs. Try not to translate; instead, try to understand meanings based on context and behaviour. Remember, making errors is a sign of courage!

After an extensive immersion programme between months 7-11, virtually all of my students see remarkable development in their speaking ability and understanding.

New brain pathways are established, allowing you to process French words just as effortlessly as English without having to constantly translate sentences in your head. Total immersion allows you to quickly move through numerous fluency levels in a short amount of time.

Month 12: Continue Working...and Overcome the Intermediate Plateau

This is something I, and many other teachers, have seen time and again. Following quick success, many students face the frustrating but brief barrier known as the 'intermediate plateau' or 'intermediate slump'.

Typical features of this period include:

  • Difficulty sustaining smooth talks at native speeds.
  • Having trouble comprehending native speakers and the media.
  • Motivation loss and repeated mistakes that become ingrained.

As you learn, you’ll understand how colossal the language is, which might be daunting. It's normal to feel stuck and disappointed when you continue to make the same mistakes. Making slower progress is natural, and there’s no reason to be discouraged.

But there's good news: this is just a temporary stage that may be easily conquered with hard work. Here are some strategies to get beyond this frustrating obstacle:

  • Be consistent in your everyday study practices. Even 15 minutes each day will help you make progress.
  • Mix up your learning materials: speak with a tutor, read, listen to podcasts, and watch videos.
  • Give yourself a break! Remember that language acquisition is a marathon, not a sprint. Even if it doesn't feel like it, as long as you practise French, you will improve.

With good habits and consistency, students may break through the intermediate plateau and achieve fast growth once again. Keep moving forward! Fluency is closer than it appears.

With the appropriate mindset and concentrating on modest daily improvements, one day you will wake up and be able to converse easily with French speakers from all over the world, on any topic you like.

I promise you that every hour you spend learning vocabulary, solving grammar problems, and adopting new pronunciations brings you closer to your goal of fluent French conversation. Allons-y!