How do the FSI "classroom hours" translate to self-learners?

The FSI has a categorisation of languages according to difficulty levels (

How do “class hours” translate to self-studying?

(Also, has anyone here on Lingq actually achieved real proficiency in group 1 lanuages after only ~0.5 years of studying?)


I wouldn’t say I got to any deep level of proficiency, but I could get by in a conversation in Spanish after 6 months…but I was “cheating”. I already spoke my second language, French, very well, having done the end of high school and all of my university in French-language schools… The Spanish was totally helped by the similarities with French.… And I’ll add that I was working hard at it and getting lots of informal exposure and practice!


Not sure! But I did see that they say their ratings "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. "

I did a search to see how that relates to CEFR and came up with this link:

There it shows that level 3 on ILR is equivalent to C1 on CEFR. Not sure if that helps a little, at least in expectations. Unfortunately I have no idea how this translates to hours on either scale =)

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I feel like almost any ‘course’ (with the exception of ‘beginner only’ courses) would get you to a decent level provided they last long enough. If each course had enough dialogue to last you 6 months, I suspect there wouldn’t be much difference between them, so long as you did the whole repeat thing as FSI has you doing (or didn’t do it for any of them, including the FSI course). We often ask, “will x course get me to x level?” But the question should probably be, “will x exposure get me to x level.”

FWIW, I know someone who did the Spanish FSI course and he said he was just about able to converse by the end of it. Though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the only resource he was using, which is kind of the point I was making - exposure is what matters; where you get it matters little.

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I think the only data points that would be useful in this case are the ratios of the hours. Category 2 is 33% more time and effort than Cat 1. – Cat 4 is double the time of Cat 3, etc. More than likely a self learner would encounter similar ratios between these categories.

But it’s hard to compare classroom hours to self study hours because self study can be a lot faster but it also focuses on different aspects. I wouldn’t even attempt to come up with workable ratio between the two.


Great question!

Because you asked it in a very specific way, the short, and definitive, answer is: Yes, I have. I am a native English speaker and Spanish is the first, and to date only, foreign language I learned.

The bad news is that I have no data points other than myself. Moreover, I have yet to see any YouTuber, linguist, webpage, or anyone else properly apply this metric, even when they think they are, and even if they are people I greatly respect and admire. Granted, I know I don’t get “out” much, even on the Internet. This is the only forum I participate in and that comes in spurts. I also don’t stay too current on developments in the field.

Nevertheless, over the years, my impatient self has many times asked the universe “How long does it take to learn a language?” In my opinion, the best answer ever given was Master Steve’s: “A long, long time.” Thanks to you, the World Wide Web will now have the second best answer here.

When people ask me, “How long have you been studying Spanish?” I could tell them 28 years. But that would make me what that hot Slovakian polyglot who liked to wear red (Lydia something?) calls a “timekeeper.” Instead, I perplex them by saying “15-1700 hours.” I’m estimate my middle and high school Spanish amounts to between 200-400 hours, but I’m not sure. On the other hand, I have invested 1,306 hours, 40 minutes of self-study and that I’m damn sure of, because I counted every one them for this very reason.

First things first. Each “week” of learning at the Defense Language Institute comprises 25 hours of “class hours,” five per day, five days per week. For the lower end languages of 24 weeks, like Spanish, that’s 600 class hours. For the slightly harder languages you spend 30 weeks doing, like German, that’s 750 hours. However, you must also include the three hours of homework per night they also do. Students at DLI make language learning their full time job, which is, not coincidentally, 8 hours per day or 40 hours per week. (Five in class, three of self study). So, one week equals 40 hours of learning time.

So for Category 1 Languages: 960-1200 hours to reach proficiency.

For Category 2: 1,440 hours.
Category 3: 1,760 hours.
Category 4: 3,520 hours.

If you’ve got nothing else to do and have 10 hours a day to focus on Mandarin like Steve in Hong Kong in 1968, yeah, you’ll do it 10 months like he did. If you put the time in Steve does now ( 1 to 1.5 hours a day/about 500 hours a year), it will take you:

Category 1 Languages: About 2 years to reach proficiency.
Category 2: About 3 years to reach proficiency.
Category 3: About 3.5 years to reach proficiency.
Category 4: About 7 years to reach proficiency.

If you’re like me, and slack off for months or years at a time, it’ll take you 20 years. Incidentally, I take the same approach to physical fitness. But either way, I got to a B2/Level 2/professional proficiency/fluency/whatever in 900-1,000 hours—the same about of time as working an FSI/DLI schedule of 40 hours for 24 weeks.

All this being said, we have a few caveats to remember:

  1. This is for English speakers. (if you’re going from Spanish to Italian or Portuguese it’s going to be faster or at least easier).

  2. Again, we have no other data points or anecdotes that I know of outside of me tracking the time this way outside of the classroom/fsi teaching model.

  3. What t_harangi brings up. I don’t know specifically how “our” self study stacks up to the DLI experience. I have no doubt it is superior to “regular” classroom environments, but DLI has very small, very intensive, very personalized programs taught by experts who just do this and students that tend to be older, experienced language learners who are very motivated. I think to these probably balance each other out and thus make them comparable, but we don’t know for sure.


So I read an interesting linguistics research paper talking about the number of read words required to cover a particular number of known “head”-words. Those number of known words approximate to particular levels. What I then did was look at one of my favorite youtube podcasters who basically talks solid. On average across five podcasts looks like he does 1.7 seconds per word spoken. So assuming as the research paper does, I backfitted the number of seconds in to figure out how many hours of video you need to watch to hit the levels. Seems to match the FSI pretty well.

2000 known words (B1 roughly) needs 170,000 read words.
3000 known words needs 300,000 read words which equates to 150 hours of video.
5000 known words (B2 roughly) needs 1,800,000 read words which equates to 500 hours of video.
8000 known words (C1 roughly) needs 4,000,000 read words which equates to 1,100 hours of video.

These are back of the envelope half-assed calculations so take them as you will.

How does this convert to where I’m at personally?

I’m currently at 450 hours of watching videos. According to anki I know 4,800 words. According to lingQ I know 9,000 some words (although I suspect anki is more accurate because lingQ counts word variations as words whereas in anki I only have headwords).

So… according to my half baked calculations I’m tracking at B2 and am halfway there to C1 which is allegedly where FSI takes you. I think it’s off though because I think I’m actually closer to B1 than to B2.


This is my experience in reverse LOL.
After 6 months of French I could pretty much have a conversation but I also “cheated” because I already spoke Spanish at B2 (at least).

Interestingly: Russian, which has very few English cognates at the lower frequency does have some French cognates at the lower frequencies, I guess from the time in the Russian Empire when they thought it was cool to speak French.