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I want to know if it is feasible for someone to add a B language from scratch; i.e, no prior knowledge of the pursued language.


I'm pursuing a linguistics BA right now in hopes that a general knowledge of language will facilitate language acquisition in the future. I'm actively studying several languages, trying to sample multiple so that I can choose which one I want to pursue fluency in. Upon choosing a language I'll be moving to a native speaking country to work until I'm proficient enough to attend an interpreting/translation program in the language.

It appears that -by some standards- attaining a new B language is an incredible feat to attempt. I'm getting mixed signals, so assuming I choose a completely unfamiliar language (like Russian), begin studying independently now, and ambitiously strive to learn it well while I live abroad....can I continue with confidence knowing that it is doable?

-If it is doable: --What timeframe am I looking at, assuming I arrive in the country with simple conversational command of the language.

-Please feel free to answer in French, German, Spanish, or Japanese.

asked 31 May '15, 12:14

Doda's gravatar image


edited 06 Jul '15, 03:09

Nacho's gravatar image

Nacho ♦

Hello Doda,

I can understand that you are getting mixed signals, as it is very rare to find someone who has chosen ahead of time to "make" an interpreting B, instead of having a language at a good level before even thinking of interpreting. You seem very organized and forward-thinking, and these are qualities you will definitely need.

It is certainly do-able, as I made my Russian B from scratch, only starting Russian at university level in the US. I wanted to be an interpreter since I was 12, but had no idea how to go about it, what languages would serve me best, or even what the job entailed. So when I chose Russian I wasn't being forward-thinking; I was just looking for the hardest language my university taught. I had started French in 6th grade at 12 years old and was in Advanced Placement in uni, so I wanted something new. After I graduated uni I went to Monterey for my interpreting degree where, at the time, they taught B only in consecutive interpreting (things have changed since). They recommended I choose Russian as my B even though I knew French better, and I listened.

So here is what I did, and maybe it will help you: once I decided to learn Russian in uni, I did everything possible at the time (Soviet Union, no Erasmus there for Americans, hard to get visas) to learn it well. I took classes in uni, including lit, history and culture; attended summer school at Middlebury College twice; went to Russia with M'bury for a semester. After I graduated I got my interpreting degree at Monterey and then went back to the Soviet Union with a traveling US cultural exhibition for 7 months, interacting with people from Russia, Georgia and Uzbekistan.

Once I got home, I took the US State Department exam and passed the simultaneous exam into English only, and the consecutive exam in both directions. This meant that I was available to work with individual visitors on official visits to the US in consec, or with larger groups doing the admin work and anything not involving simultaneous interpretation. As I was organized, State hired me for back-to-back assignments, so I was interacting in Russian all the time.

At the same time, I went back to Russia (no longer the Soviet Union) for a minimum of six weeks a year, sometimes spread over a few visits, sometimes all at once. I traveled, lived on the economy, stayed with friends as well as in hotels when I was working, immersing myself in the culture.

With all of this work, it still took me 4 years before I passed the sim exam into Russian, and could say I have a real B language. Since then I've worked at all levels, from NGOs to Presidential summits, in topics ranging from refugees to nuclear physics, all into and out of Russian.

So it is do-able to "make" a B rather than growing up with a second language. It takes dedication, organization, commitment, a lot of time, and a bit of luck. As a foreigner, I proved my credentials to my delegates through my knowledge of culture, including the latest popular culture, and to my colleagues I proved them each day in the booth.

Just keep in mind that you have to make an enormous effort to keep up a B that is "made" from scratch. It wasn't an effort when I lived in the US and worked all the time exclusively with Russian. Now that I live in Europe and work pretty much in an English booth for international organizations, it is much more of a commitment.

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answered 09 Jun '15, 05:10

JuliaP's gravatar image



Thanks a lot, this was the exact type of answer I was hoping for.

-Do you think it would be more prudent for me to major in a specific language, rather than linguistics?

(09 Jun '15, 08:42) Doda

I think you should avoid the mistakes I made. Don't simply study a language or linguistics, because when you get out on the market, you will not only have to learn the vocabulary for your conference topic, but also the underlying concepts.

I would recommend studying international relations, basic law, basic engineering and economics in the language of your choice. Major in your language if you like, but study other topics as well, including those I just mentioned as well as the history, literature and culture of your chosen language.

(09 Jun '15, 09:15) JuliaP

Thank you so much!

(09 Jun '15, 13:00) Doda


I've read your response about 4 times now, and it raises a loosely related question; do you have any tips for funding studies and research trips??

Thank you

(10 Jun '15, 13:08) Doda

Hi Doda - that should probably be a whole new question, and may already have been asked here. But quite frankly, I know very little. I would suggest trying to get a work-study position in the institution of your choice by offering to be an assistant to one of the professors, a speechwriter, a conversation teacher, or whatever is available in your native language. I remember that Monterey had people from other countries doing the assistant work; Bath University had a lectrice last time I was there; in my uni we had grad students from other countries in our foreign language department to help with grading papers and conversation (this was years ago). Most of my own trips were either for work, or funded by me but fully tax deductible, as in the US it was considered professional development. I would recommend asking this as a separate question - maybe you will get better answers from people who have done this more recently.

(10 Jun '15, 15:39) JuliaP

Of course it's possible. It's just a question of time. From scratch takes more than if you already have a head-start. And some languages take longer than others. But a rough set of figures might be... 3-4 years for Spanish or French B, with the last 2-3 years in the country. A bit longer for German or Polish. 6-7 years for Russian (3-4 years in Russia). 10 years for Chinese (5+ years in China). Of course these numbers will vary depending on lots of factors, including your talent. Some people never get to a B level in a foreign language.

See this answer for a description of how you might add a language from scratch...

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answered 09 Jun '15, 05:07

Andy's gravatar image


edited 10 Jun '15, 12:46

-If it is doable: --What timeframe am I looking at, assuming I arrive in the country with simple conversational command of the language.

This will depend largely on what you will be doing in the foreign country. If you're able to study at university for five years, it'll be a huge help. On the other hand, if you have to get a day job you'll find it difficult to find the time and energy to actively progress.

Some say it takes about 4 years of regular efforts to add a C. And about as much time to make a C become B material. But again, this depends on your situation, the difficulty of the language, etc.

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answered 02 Jun '15, 08:36

G%C3%A1sp%C3%A1r's gravatar image

Gáspár ♦


Thanks Gaspar, your answers are always so helpful! It's very reassuring to hear that from someone experienced.

(02 Jun '15, 10:41) Doda
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question asked: 31 May '15, 12:14

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