How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?

How long does it really take to learn a second language? The short answer is, it depends.

Most language teachers will tell you that what you put in, is what you get out of language studies. Companies that sell language learning products or software may claim that their method or materials will guarantee fluency in a certain period of time. Usually, that time frame just happens to correspond to their particular program. Language experts tend to be skeptical of claims that a certain method can guarantee fluency in a short period of time – and with good reason.

The reality is that language acquisition is a complex process that involves communication, grammar, structure, comprehension and language production along with reading, writing, speaking and listening, just to name a few of the simpler aspects of language learning.

John Archibald and a team of researchers at the University of Calgary conducted a study in 2007 that examined a number of questions relating to second language learning. The found that students who learn other subjects in a foreign language are likely to gain fluency and competence faster. The method, known as content-based language teaching (CBLT), involves teaching subject matter content such as math, geography and other subjects in a foreign language.

“Students in time-intensive content-based language teaching (CBLT) programs, such as French immersion, are typically able to master complex content material effectively, despite less than native-like proficiency in the language of instruction.

In programs where students have limited second-language proficiency and less time is devoted to second-language learning, the concrete and highly-contextualized content.” (Archibald et al, 2007)

Their work also found that the age at which a person begins to learn a language matters. Children who grow up learning more than one language at home essentially have two mother tongues (Archibald et al., 2007 and Swain, 1972).

For those that don’t have the privilege of learning more than one language from a young age at home, there are other factors.

The age of the learner

Language learning follows different patterns depending on when you start. Citing a study conducted by Birdsong (1999), Archibald and his team found that: “If second-language acquisition begins at age 5, it follows a different pattern than when second-language acquisition begins at age 25 or at age 15.” (Archibald et al., 2007, p. 3).

Notice that the researchers are careful not to judge if one’s ability to learn a language becomes better or worse at a certain age. It simply follows a different mental and cognitive pattern.

Immersion

It also makes a difference if you’re learning a minority language or a majority language (Archibald et al, 2007; Cummins and Swain, 1986). For example, if you live in an English-speaking country and you are learning Italian, you are learning a minority language. But if you are an Italian living in England who is learning English, you are learning the language spoken by the majority. If you’re submersed in a language, the learning process is different because you’re being exposed to the language more for more hours per day, on a consistent basis.

Language learning in school

A key finding of the research by the University of Calgary team found that students who take foreign language classes at school are unless to receive sufficient exposure to the language to gain deep fluency:

“Learning a second language for 95 hours per year for six years will not lead to functional bilingualism and fluency in the second language. Expectations must be realistic.” (Archibald et al., 2007, p. 3)

Language learning in terms of hours – Apply the “10,000-hour rule”

Though the researchers don’t say how they arrived at the number of 95 hours per year, we can figure it out. Let’s look:

4 hours per week of language classes x 12 weeks per semester x 2 semesters per school year

= 96 hours per year.

If a student begins learning a language in grade six and continues on through to high school completion in grade 12, that constitutes 6 years of language learning.

96 hours per year for 6 years = 576 hours of language instruction

In his book, Outliers, author Malcom Gladwell highlights a study orirignally published in the Harvard Business review by Ericsson et al. The general premise has become known as the “10,000 hours to become an expert rule”. In the book Gladwell explains the research behind the notion that true expertise is achieved after an individual has invested 10,000 hours in learning or practicing a skill. This may be a sport, a musical instrument or the study of something.

There are many ways to define “fluency”.

If, for the sake of argument, we consider fluency to be the same as being an “expert” in speaking a language, then a learner may well invest 10,000 hours in their language studies to attain fluency.

People will shake their heads when they hear that. No one wants to believe it really requires that much work.

Let’s look at some different scenarios:

Scenario #1: One 3-hour adult education course per week x 8 weeks = 24 hours

Scenario #2: One year of language learning in school = 4 hours per week x 12 weeks x 2 semesters = 96 hours

Scenario #3: 1 year of consistent, dedicated self-study (or homework) at 1 hour per day = 365 hours

Scenario #4: One year of total immersion in the new language (Assuming that in a 24-hour day, we allow 8 hours for sleeping per day) = 16 hours per day x 365 days = 5840 hours

If we use Gladwell’s of 10,000-hour rule,  here’s how long it would take to achieve “expert ability” in a foreign language:

Scenario #1 – Adult education classes – 416 courses of 24 hours per course. If you did 2 courses per year, you’d need 208 years to become fluent.

Scenario #2 – Foreign language studies at school – 96 hours of classes per year = 104 years to achieve fluency.

Scenario #3 – Dedicated self-study – An hour a day, every single day of the year = 365 hours per year = 27 years

Scenario #4 – Total immersion – Approximately 2 years

Let’s be clear. This is one very simplified way of looking at language learning. I openly admit that this way of looking at the question may be a bit reductionist. I said at the beginning of this post that language learning is a complex activity. This way of looking at how long it takes to become fluent doesn’t take into account individual differences or abilities, and nor does it address the effectiveness of different language teaching methods. It is simply one way to answer the question, “How long does it take to learn a new language?”

Some argue that immersion is the “best” way to learn a language. Others argue that there is no one “best” way. It may not be about the methods used, but simply the amount of hours spent learning. Learning can be done in formal, non-formal and informal contexts. Language learning doesn’t always take place in the classroom. Trained teachers can offer strategies and guidance that the self-directed learner may not have.

The bottom line is that mastering a foreign language takes time, dedication and hard work, regardless of whether it is done in a classroom or in an immersion setting.

However, the benefits of learning how to speak a second language are certainly worth the effort. The challenges of learning another language are immense. Yet millions have achieved some degree of fluency in at least one other language. Those who achieve true fluency do so because they put in dedicated, consistent effort over a long period of time. Claiming otherwise is tantamount to fraud.

Instead of asking “How long does it take to become fluent in another language?”

perhaps a better question is

“How do I get my 10,000 hours of study and practice to become fluent in a new language?”

The answer for most people, in practical terms of every day life, may well like in some combination of formal or non-formal classes, self-study, practice with others in informal contexts and immersion experiences through travel or living abroad.

References

Archibald, J., Roy, S., Harmel, S., Jesney, K., Dewey, E., Moisik, S., et al. (2006). A review of the literature on second language learning. Retrieved from http://education.alberta.ca/media/349348/litreview.pdf.

Birdsong, D., ed. (1999). Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cummins, J. and M. Swain. (1986). Bilingualism in Education. London, England: Longman.

Eaton, S.E. (2010). Global Trends in Language Learning in the Twenty-first Century. Calgary: Onate Press. Archived by the European Association of Education for Adults (EAEA).

Eaton. S.E. (2010). Global Trends in Language Learning in the Twenty-first Century (webinar).

Ericsson, K. A., Prietula, M. J., & Cokely, E. T. (2007). The Making of an Expert. Harvard Business Review (July-August ).

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Gladwell, M. (n.d.). The 10,000 Hour Rule.   Retrieved May 10, 2010, from http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/outliers_excerpt1.html

Harley, B., A. d’Anglejan and S. Shapson. (1990). The Evaluation Syllabus, National Core French Study. Winnipeg, MB: Canadian Association of Second Language Teachers.

Swain, M. (1972). “Bilingualism as a First Language.” Ph.D. dissertation. Irvine, CA: University of California at Irvine.

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Update: January 2, 2013 – Some of this same content has now been published as a peer-reviewed article in a refereed journal: Eaton, S. E. (2012). How will Alberta’s second language students ever achieve proficiency? ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, the CEFR and the “10,000-hour rule” in relation to the Alberta K-12 language-learning context. Notos, 12(2), 2-12. Leave me a comment if you would like a copy of the article for research purposes.

Update: March 27, 2011 – This article has now been published as an academic paper. Download your copy from ERIC.

____________________

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62 Responses to How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?

  1. loan calculator says:

    This is a very good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Brief but very precise information… Thank you for sharing this one.

    A must read article!

  2. Terry Waltz, PhD says:

    As usual, comprehensible-input based methods are completely ignored in these time estimates. Let’s see how many hours of high-quality concentrated input it takes. The numbers will be much lower.

  3. [...] my students.  It answers a very common question of “When will my child be fluent?”  Click here to read – How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language by Dr. S. Eaton.  As a language teacher, however, I can attest to the fact that I did have several motivated super [...]

  4. jthree says:

    Thank you Dr. Sarah and to the rests, I’m starting learning English as my second language though, we had English subjects in school during Elem., HS, and College years however, we’re not used to speak the language daily. Now that I’m in the heart of Manhattan enrolled to an English school, I pray and hope with my daily interactions and immersion to/with people who are looking forward to learn English better at least, if not fluent, my dream will come true. I just need to be more confident to speak out my ideas and thoughts cos I’ve got lots of it. I also hope that someday I can be one of the good authors/writers that have given great contributions in the world. That’s why I make sure that I’ll learn the English grammar correctly and my speaking will follow cos I already know what to say then. Wink. God bless and stay healthy always. More power.

    Jthree

  5. Emre mohummed says:

    If it takes anyone anywhere near 10,000 hours to learn a language then they have serious problems or are doing something majorly wrong… I’m Turkish but have lived in England and never learnt Turkish untill I was around 15 when I decided to do a good 2hours a day and so became fluent within around 3-6 months (although I had no knowledge of Turkish I subliminally did as I grew up with Turkish around me and 1/6th of my time in turkey… Now that I’m learning Malay I do 1hour 5times a week and at the moment I’m on about 10months and I am at level 4 which I would count as ‘fluent’ whilst doing this I am also doing my degree in Arabic and learning 5mandarin words a day. I would say a good estimate of the amount of time I put into languages is 1200hours a year (at currant rate) which means according to ’10,000 hours’ it will take me around 25years to ‘master’ the languages I’m learning…… I appreciate how high the bar for ‘master’ can be put but I find this figure still outrageously High (40words per hour would put it at 200,000 assuming half the time is spent for grammar)

  6. [...] paper on the time required to become “an ELL expert” – and published a version on her own blog (Literacy, Languages and [...]

  7. [...] been exposed to English before. Moreover, fluency in a language develops over time, and even the amount of time required is influenced by numerous factors. Also, having a superb command of English is secondary to the more pressing need for bus drivers [...]

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  10. Mike says:

    Hi there, I am 35 years old and I have been living in UK for 10 months , I started learning english from intermediate level and still I can’t understand many times some conversation and movies . In my opinion learning by listening is the best way and you can do it much better just if you are very young. Since you are older you learn by writing and learning but as you know a child learn first of all to understand , then speaking an afterwards reading and writing , so my advice is start as soon as possible is not a question of time is a question of mindset!!!!
    Cheers

    • Language Teacher says:

      Hi Mike,
      yes listening is very important on most audio-lingual methods of the 1960′s (e.g. FSI, Linguaphone, etc.) were designed mainly for acoustic learners. However some are visual learners while others are kinesthetic learners, though this is generalized, most people are a bit of each but tend to me more lets say acoustic, or visual etc.
      Try watching movies with closed capions/subtitles, it may speed up you comprehension or at least it works for me when learning a foreign language to watch a movie (let’s say in Spanish) while simultaneously reading Spanish subtitles.

      Please bear in mind that often on DVDs subtitles are shortened, i.e. the convey similar information in lesser words.
      TTFN

  11. beneficii says:

    What do you think of people on the autism spectrum, who had significant language delays as a child? Though I speak normally now, in even my native language, I still have problems at times communicating effectively and comprehending what others have said–especially when I’m under stress. I have problems in social situations where I feel overwhelmed and shut down, and don’t really have any friends, though I do have some online contacts in my target language, who I met through a website that was not for foreign learners of the language and dealt with a topic that doesn’t usually get attention from foreigners and who have said they don’t speak English–and they seem able to understand me fine. I’ve spent time with solitary activities, watching satellite TV, movies, and other media and reading books in my target language. I spend little time with English media. I still have problems sometimes putting sentences together, though English does not seem to transfer to my sentences.

    I don’t live in the country, and still live in an English-speaking country, and am wondering how I should go about finding contacts I can meet in person face to face.

    • The research I have done on the impact of a disability such as autism on learning a language showed me that the results can vary dramatically from one person to another. While most everyone has the capacity to learn, the extent to which they can acquire proficiency or fluency varies and depends on a number of factors. If languages are something you are interested in, keep trying. Language learning has many cognitive and social benefits, even if you are not always learning under ideal conditions.

      • Language Teacher says:

        The best way to find a study-buddy is to go to the language department of a local university and ask them if you could put up a language exchange notice (you may want to bring with you some ID and proof of address as they may require this).
        Being disabled myself it may be worth mentioning it in your exchange notice thus preventing any unpleasantness. I am mentioning this because when I get stressed my stammering become an issue.
        Best of luck :)

    • Michele says:

      This comment is very clearly expressed. You underestimate your ability with language. It is not how many words you know, but using what you know to great effect and you have done this. The acquisition of language is an ongoing process and should always be seen as this. My advice to you is not to listen to any show-offs who make wild claims about their fantastic abilities in learning language within a period of months. It is just unspeakable non-sense. Unfortunately so many gullible people are taken in by such charlatans and give up trying to learn another language because of this.

  12. [...] am i talking about this? Well, because i read this article “How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?” by Dr. S.E. Eaton. It was an interesting read, a bit technical for a lay-person though, but still a good [...]

  13. Alain Breton says:

    I disagree on the amount of time it takes in reference to Gladwell, for example for the simple fact that learning a language is far from linear. Knowledge builds upon itself. In other words, you might be struggling in the first few weeks or months but after about 6 months of proper language studies, either in class or self-studying, you could pretty much cover up all the basic grammar you need to understand a short text. From then, learn as much vocabulary as you can and while you might not be proficient in a single year of study, I believe that you will then start learning from your surroundings rather than simply doing grammar exercices. I have studied Japanese for 8 months intensively at school, passed the basic courses and reached to the intermediate levels. Then I focused on reading and vocabulary either using software or good old pen and paper. Focusing on vocabulary made ma proficient speaker after only a few years. This software here is a good example of the tools people can use to learn vocabulary. It worked for me, at least! http://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/lexi-japanese/id464056344?mt=8 But taking 27 years to learn a language (or claiming it would take that long) is ridiculous and it shows that very few people understand language learning.

    • I appreciate your perspective on this. I should point out that Gladwell and others, such as Ericsson et al. don’t talk about what it takes to learn the basics, but rather what it takes to develop high levels of expertise. The scenarios are meant to illustrate that developing high levels of proficiency may require many more hours than the average language learner suspects. I agree with you that developing novice or basic levels of competence requires much less time.

      • I am a high school French teacher in Canada. I would like to thank all concerned for a fascinating discussion! For what it’s worth, I think music can help a lot. I use original songs based on specific elements of grammar which are repeated over and over in each song.
        My students write a few lines from a song they have memorized in the margin of a test or exam to jog the memory. The true key to optimum language learing, in my opinion, is slow, careful repetition of very small units of information that are couched in an interesting context. If you can love the repetition you will learn at a quick tempo. Adding music activates more of the brain, relaxes the student, and makes learning fun! Check it out: http://www.youtube.com.mmeannagraham –Please, please contact me if you find these songs useful in your classes or private study. Many thanks !

      • Language Teacher says:

        Hi Alain,
        I believe that the Gladwell study referred to a proficiency level attained after post-doctoral studies.
        On grounds of probabilities and from my own little experience I know that even some ‘native’ language speakers (regardless of language) could be said that they have failed to reach Gladwell level of proficiency, e.g. some people left without completing High School and then their (taught) education ceased….this can be seen in their writing or heard in their slightly inaccurate speech such as the use of ‘them people’ instead of the correct ‘those people’.
        Please note that the above comment is just a generalization, some people are capable to attain proficiency even without completing a High School Diploma or equivalent qualification.
        If a person had good grades before living school, chances are that although their vocabulary ‘might’ be standard (i.e. they might not know too many ‘big’ or generally ‘obscure words’, their proficiency in the language is still great.
        tata :)

      • Thanks for all your comments on this post. I should clarify that the 10,000 hours that Ericsson et al. and Gladwell talk about is for an Expert level of proficiency, not a working knowledge or even an advanced level. High levels of Expertise would take you to the very top of your game… in any field.

  14. Sam says:

    There’s no rule when it comes to acquiring and becoming fluent in a second language. It varies from individual to individual and there are many factors that can contribute L2 acquisition. There are hypothesis and theories but they are just that. There could be some predictable factors that can be attributed to L2 acquisition. Yet, no expert have ever come forward with a list of fluent speakers they themselves have created–that’s why I believe it has to do with the “linguistic brain” that an individual is born with, along with the input he/she receives during his/her life. It’s no different that any other subject in school. How many good math students a teacher has in a given class? 30 out of 30? How many has a chemistry teacher? How about an English teacher or biology teacher? Oh by the way–I came to the US thirty years ago and learned the English language all by myself. Two other friends who came with me at the same time, couldn’t make it so they went back to the Caribbean. Can anyone explain how is it that I learned the English language and they didn’t?
    THanks,

    Sam

    • Language Teacher says:

      Hiya Sam,
      The short answer is motivation and perseverance, though the long answer would have to take into account several other factors. Some people are said to have a flair for learning languages for my point of view I tend to believe that it is all down to motivation and practice.
      Cheerio :)

  15. echo says:

    I’m not sure if my question has been answered above. I really want to know how long for a university student to master a foreign language, despite he or she has learned the language since elementary school. Is there any research on this? FYI, in Indonesia, although English has been taught since elementary school, there are still many students, including those who study English specifically in the university, fail to speak the language.

    • I’m not sure if there has been any research done on Indonesian university students in particular. Part of the difficulty arises when we try to define what we mean by “fluency” or “proficiency”. Are we talking about the ability to read and write? If so, at what grade level? Are we talking about the ability to speak and listen? If so, who decides when another can speak fluently? Or are we talking about the ability to achieve a minimum score on a standardized test such at the IELTS, TOEFL, CAEL or any other standardized tests? It is tricky, as there are many definitions out there.

      • echo says:

        Actually I was talking about speaking ability only.
        I just wonder if there is any research to see how long for someone, age about 18 years old (it could be of any countries that considers English as a foreign language) to be able to speak the language confidently.
        Confidently means that in daily conversations, he or she will not hesitant to speak English even though his or her grammar is not really good.
        Or is there any research done to find out the capabilities of people, based on levels of age (children/teenagers/young adult/adult) to be able to speak a foreign language?
        Again, I am particularly looking for research subjects around 17-18 years old.
        If there is any information related to this, it will be very helpful.
        Thank you very much.

      • Language Teacher says:

        In response to ‘echo’:
        How long … to master a foreign language

        For the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), i.e.

        C1 -Mastery Level in English (ESOL) = approximately 700–800 Guided Learning Hours (GLH)

        C2 -Proficiency Level C2 (ESOL)= approximately 1,000–1,200 (GLH)

        Source: http://www.cambridgeesol.org/about/standards/can-do.html

        Though you should bear in mind that those hours will vary depending on so many factors, e.g.

        1) How close is your native tongue to English?
        2) Do you live in an English speaking country?
        3) Do you use English ‘most’ of the time?
        etc

  16. Farah says:

    I’m currently learning Farsi and was wondering if watching Iranian TV would count as a way of immersion? Because that’s the easiest and closest way I can get to with immersion. Or should I select another approach to this?

    • That’s a great question, Farah. I’m not sure I’d call it “immersion”, but I think it would count as exposure. Having exposure to authentic language is important, since sometimes language learning materials can use artificially simplified vocabulary. Also language learning materials often present language in a slow and controlled manner. Authentic language is often spoken much faster and includes many vocabulary words that would not be in a typical beginner textbook. I always found it helpful to watch the news in foreign languages, since newscasters speak in a clear, articulate manner without much slang. Also, I would follow the news in my own language so I already had an idea of what the story was about. If you have no other options, then watching TV is an excellent way to get exposure to authentic language spoken by native speakers. Good luck on your language learning journey.

  17. [...] of time it takes ‘a student’ to learn a second language with some version of “It depends” or “It depends on the [...]

  18. [...] http://drsaraheaton.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/how-long-does-it-take-to-learn-a-new-language/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted on March 22, 2012. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment [...]

  19. emk1024 says:

    The rule of thumb about “10,000 hours of delibrate practice” applied to famous violin soloists, top-ranked chess players, and other world-class experts. Foreign languages aren’t quite so bad, if your expectations are reasonable.

    Let’s assume that our goal is “professional working proficiency”: At this level, you could hold down a white-color job, socialize easily, debate abstract ideas, enjoy television and movies, and take college-level courses. You’d still make mistakes, and nobody would mistake you for a truly native speaker, but you could still thrive. This corresponds to a score of 3/3 on the ILR scale, or a C1 on the CEFRL scale.

    For an easy language like French, the US Foreign Service Institute expects you to reach C1 after 600 hours of classes and roughly 480 hours of homework, which they cram into 24 agonizing weeks. A really hard language like Japanese jumps to 2200 hours of class, a proportional amount of homework, and 88 weeks (half of those in Japan).

    So if you’re aiming for “professional working proficiency”, you’re talking about 1,000 to 4,000 hours. Granted, this is still about a zillion years of night classes. :-)

  20. Guus says:

    Reblogged this on Learn Languages: Yago and commented:
    I often get the question: “if I complete this course, will I be fluent in the language?”. If you only rely on part-time adult evening lessons, theoretically, you’d be fluent after 207 years, i.e. never! The only way to reach fluency is immersion: using the language you are learning in everyday life as much as possible.
    This post by Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton quotes scientific sources. I wrote an earlier post on this same subject, based on my language learning experience, and the conclusions match pretty closely!

  21. Reid says:

    Hi Sarah, thinking within the idea of realizing 10,000 hours of practice, I believe language acquisition presents the additional challenge of finding hours of quality practice. This is why I believe in the immersion method.

    Looking at Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, for instance: the examples that Gladwell used to play out his 10,000 hour rule are activities more easily practiced on your own. I remember he mentioned programming (Gates) and playing music (The Beatles). I think quality language practice is tougher to come by than quality programming exercises because language takes two human beings in close contact– quality practice is real communication, and the joys of learning language are in good communication.

    So the difficulty we hear from students who return to school where their new language is not taught (we are a summer program) is finding quality hours– not just listening to podcasts or reading magazines but listening and speaking, reading and responding. Immersion settings offer these two-sided methods of practice, or at least opportunities to engage in meaningful communication. I think immersion settings, whether home or abroad, not only offer a concentrated number of hours but also quality hours, which make people better communicators in their world language in a broad range of competencies. I believe a student who has completed 1, 5, or 10,000 hours of immersion will probably speak, read, write, and understand more adeptly than someone who has completed 1, 5, or 10,000 hours of solitary exercises. Also, the immersion learner has probably found more social satisfaction.

    • Thanks, Reid, for your thoughtful and insightful comments. Sounds like you’ve read, Outliers, too? I wonder if Gladwell’s examples about hockey players and athletes is similar to what you’re talking about — working as an individual, but as part of a team or a group? You’ve got me thinking now. I’m going to go back and re-read it and see if Gladwell (or the Harvard researchers) assess quality in any way. Great food for thought.

  22. Cesar says:

    I’m learning french next, already looks like its going to take a very long time.

    • Thanks for your comments, Cesar. There is some research that suggests that learning 3rd and subsequent languages may be a bit faster, but I’m not sure about that either. I tried to learn German after studying French, Spanish and Italian. Never quite got the hang of it…

  23. Cesar says:

    well i learned English in three years but Italian in 7 months. My guess is that because i knew Spanish (witch is fairly similar to Italian) it made it easier idk that’s just my guess. sometimes i still have to think before i speak but as far as being able to hold a conversation i would say i’m pretty good at it.

  24. [...] define fluency or mastery. For an excellent look at this question, read Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton’s How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?Another way to think about how long it will take you to learn any language is that doing so depends [...]

  25. Angela says:

    This is second article of it’s kind I have read that actually makes sense. I have been using the 10,000 rule since I started learning French almost two years ago. I’ve made amazing progress, (spoken, comprehension and written) yet none of my two native languages is Latin based. I enjoy my classes, and I put in the extra effort at home, and whenever am on the move. I live in a multilingual and extremely cosmopolitan country, so total immersion as such is not exactly possible, because the levels of French spoken here are also different. However, I only watch TV in French, I watch French movies as well and can follow French humor. I read french novels and speak in French every chance I get, including on the phone. In a month, I will start my advanced classes, yet I believe I am at roughly 4,000hrs. Less than half of these hours were attained within a classroom setting. You can see now that class alone will never get you to that place. Though I am not even half way where I want to be yet, I see my progress and it makes me delighted.

    Another thing, learning the grammar HAS helped me a great deal. Like in the article where Dr. Elaine mentions that the <> of language acquisition is not exactly known, yet it works differently at various ages. I would argue that it also works differently for different people. I don’t think therefore that emphasizing or encouraging learners to forget the grammar is a good idea. Grammar + repetition of sentences emphasizing grammar rules has helped me plenty in integrating what I have and continue to learn..There was in fact a phase during which all I heard when I watched TV was the grammar. I remember listening and thinking <>. Of course the conversations were always too quick to allow any detailed analysis, but i still noticed it. At the moment, knowing the grammar rules sometimes helps me to know when I have made a mistake (sometimes I can tell after I’ve finished saying what I was saying) or when I am making a mistake as I speak, because the right tense is not at my finger tips…then I consciously make a note, mental or otherwise, to work on that area. So… let’s not rule out the importance of grammar in language acquisition, especially for adults.

    • Thanks for the comment, Angela. I agree with you that grammar is one important component of language learning. The fact that you have tracked your language learning hours is wonderful! I’d invite you to comment again when you’re at 5000 hours, 6000 hours, and so on. I would be interested to learn about your progress and your insights as you invest more time. Congratulations on your dedication.

  26. Stephen C says:

    Enjoyed your article! Thank you

  27. bharat thapa says:

    Just one question, can anyone master any language by self teaching it?
    (I am teaching spanish to myself, it has been already 4months. In the beginning i wasn’t regular but later somehow managed to make it regular for me and now i have started understanding phrases and songs etc.)

    but still i seek some pieces of advice from you.

    • There are cases where a person can teach themselves to learn a new language. It can be difficult if you do not have nearby access to native speakers — or even teachers — of the language you want to learn. One problem – which you have addressed perfectly – is that most people do not have the discipline to continue with their learning after the initial novelty has worn off. It is hard to stay motivated when you are doing it alone. Today, there are some options for connecting with other learners online that may help you to connect with native speakers — LiveMocha and SkypeProf are two examples that come to mind. If you have the ability to connect with others, I think it can be helpful. If that is not a possibility for you, then just keep going and enjoy the experience of learning, making the most of what you CAN do, given your reality and your situation. I applaud you for being a lifelong learner!

  28. Gareth Evans says:

    I asked Evan at the LARC 2011 Workshop a similar question Is language already there or is it already there and developed?. His answer and this thread deal with getting a second language,not the mother tongue. I think these responses beg my question and maybe yours..I agree that the mother tongue is got by immersion in the culture. And also that immersion is also a good way to get a second language. But as Cecilia Bartlett concluded her presentation and sshe said that the students main problem was lexical confusion in the meaning of words and their use in more complicated expressions. My interest is getting those basic meanings straight at the beginning.

  29. Skip Crosby says:

    I wonder if I could suggest the term “language acquisition” rather than language learning? I would argue that we do not “learn” languages in the traditional sense of the term but rather that we acquire them through listening to comprehensible input nearly the same as we acquire our first language. Never do we acquire our first language by “learning” the grammar structures of language but ONLY by hearing the language over and over and over.

    I would also argue that methods that stress comprehensible input over “language (grammar) “learning” have a reduce the needed time.

    Thank you for your very interesting article.
    Skip Crosby

  30. Gareth Evans says:

    C.K. Ogden said that six weeks(two hours a day) would allow a new learner to get the sense of anything written in Basic English. Getting comfort in talk may be longer.

    • Thanks for the comment, Evan. Getting a sense of a language and getting comfortable are important aspects of language learning for sure, and they are important steps along the path to deep mastery.

  31. [...] How Long Does It Take to Learn a New Language? “Language experts tend to be skeptical of claims that a certain method can guarantee fluency in a short period of time – and with good reason. The reality is that language acquisition is a complex process that involves communication, grammar, structure, comprehension and language production along with reading, writing, speaking and listening, just to name a few of the simpler aspects of language learning.” [...]

  32. AndoDoug says:

    Hi – well it was a typical ESL school with continuous enrollment, i.e. we had new students arriving every Monday and staying anywhere from a week to a year, as well as people graduating every Friday – very little class stability. In other words the option was there for a beginner to go through 84 weeks without repeating anything, but obviously few if any stayed that long. Most arrive between June and August and stay from a couple weeks to a couple months. Those who went for the full time option got 5 hours a day of class time. So I guess I’m saying 2100 hours as a bare minimum to go from false beginner to reasonably fluent, i.e. on a par with the Advanced Cambridge certificate (CAE) but not up to their Proficiency level (CPE).

  33. AndoDoug says:

    6 months to be fluent in Arabic? I’m not convinced by Michael’s self-evaluation. Obviously those he was holding the conversations with would be a better judge. And when he says he understood much of what being said around him, well, how much? And how much did you only think you understood? Hard to say. At the adult language school I used to teach at we insisted on 6-7 weeks per level, with 12 levels to reach the end of the advanced course (an adequate but not comprehensive level of fluency), so that comes to 84 weeks in an immersion situation, triple Michael’s phenomenal learning curve and likely closer to the truth.

    • Good points. Thanks for sharing both your perspective and the information about your courses. Just out of curiosity… How many hours did each of your 12-level courses include? How many hours would the students get in the 84 weeks? Sounds like a robust program.

    • Luckyluce says:

      Michael didn’t say he was fluent in Arabic in six months. He said he could get by and hold a basic conversation in Arabic after six months.

  34. This is a solid post, Sarah. The only quibble I have is that “fluency” in your post like many others on this topic equate “fluency” with “mastery” – but you can, as an adult second language learner, achieve conversational fluency in 6 months. Every day 1 hour of study + 20 minutes listening to native speech via radio, tv, etc + 10 min practice speaking, writing, or reading can do the trick. I know this for sure, because I’ve done it. Learned Arabic for work about 25 years ago and in 6 months was able to hold a conversation and was able to understand much of what was being said around me. Was I an Arabic orator? No. Was I able to make myself understood and was I able to understand others? Yes. 10,000 hours might be needed to master a language. But FAR less is required to be functional, enjoy the culture deeply, and build strong relationships.

    • Thanks for your comment, Michael. I agree with you that fluency can be defined in a variety of ways. This post assumes that fluency does mean a certain level of mastery that includes reading, writing, speaking and listening. The way that Gladwell, and the original researchers of the Harvard Business Review article refer to expertise is someone who has a deep knowledge of a subject matter. For me as both a language learner and a teacher, achieving deep mastery requires a good deal of time. But you’re right… It all depends how you define “fluency”. :-)

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