How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?

February 20, 2011

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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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


2 Key Questions to Ask When You’re Desperate for Funding

February 17, 2011

Earlier this week I was working with some colleagues at an organization I have a great deal of respect for. The organization needs funding. Over a dozen brilliant minds sat around the table talking about different ways to get the money necessary to continue the good work they’ve been doing for a number of years. At times, the conversation got lost in possibilities… ways they could bring in money to sustain the organization.

During this brainstorming activity, I could see a drift away from the values and philosophy the organization had always held. That kind of drift is OK during a discussion that remains theoretical, lingering in the realm of “What if?” It becomes troublesome only when an organization begins to shift away from their values in search of more money. At some point before ideas turn into a plan with deliverables and a timeline, it is worthwhile to ask two simple key questions:

What’s the work we value most? – What are the primary activities that brought you together and keep you going? What is the work that matters?

Who do we help? – Funding is a necessity to keep an organization going, but it’s not the only factor. People need to be invested, too. If you’re helping them in some way, benefiting them, encouraging them, nudging them towards growth and challenging them along the way, they’re more likely to stick around. Whatever activities you decide to pursue in order to get money should still somehow be focused on helping those who are most interested and invested in your success.

Once you get those two questions sorted out, the number of possible activities you can do to pursue funding decreases. And that’s a good thing. What remains after those two questions are answered are the choices that are most aligned with your vision and values. That makes the decision about how to move forward a whole lot easier.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Interview with Sandy Hirtz: Leading by Example

February 16, 2011

The Literacy and Language Professionals Who Lead by Example Series is dedicated to highlighting the impact made by exemplary literacy and language professionals who lead by example. They share their inspirational tips and stories. Check out those who were honoured in the 2010 series.

I’m thrilled to start off the 2011 series by showcasing the work of a leader who works tirelessly from her home base in British Columbia, Canada. She’s a leader when it comes to literacy, technology and collaboration. A true inspiration!

What is your name, affiliation, and connection to language learning?

My name is Sandy Hirtz.  I am an independent e-learning and social media advisor. I primarily work from home juggling a plethora of projects. I moderate online forums for the BC Ministry of Education: Literacy branch, E-learning branch and Leadership branch.  I am involved in an Open Educational Resources for open schooling project with the Commonwealth of Learning.  I am project manager and editor of two books collaboratively authored by professionals from around the globe—Education for a Digital World, Edition 1 and soon to be released, Edition 2.0.

What are your thoughts about leadership and literacy?

I think the age-old philosophy of autonomous leadership is no longer adequate for dealing with the complex problems inherent in communities and organizations today. The current intensity and speed of globalization compounds the urgency of addressing the issue of literacy for all, especially among the poor and marginalized on as many fronts as possible.

As people concerned with education, literacy leaders have a critical role to play in fostering, supporting, encouraging and, above all, equipping learners with the values and skill-set necessary to be successful in the 21st century. What better way than by modeling and mirroring this world in our own practice.

Today’s leaders need to be tech savvy, think globally, collaborate, and create partnerships. They need to have the ability to anticipate, envision, maintain flexibility, think strategically, share responsibility, and build community.

In your opinion, what’s the most important aspect of a language or literacy professional’s job?

Raising literacy levels! Illiteracy is a critical problem that affects all corners of the earth. It has no boundaries and exists among every race and ethnicity, age group, and economic class. This silent epidemic threatens over 785 million adults worldwide; one in five adults is still not literate, two-thirds of them are women.

Improving literacy is a commitment to taking on a collaborative, cohesive, coordinated and holistic approach that involves families, communities, and government. It means taking the best of what is happening and making it accessible to all. It means looking at literacy as a lifelong skill. It means considering where and when we can best reach those in need of resources, training, and opportunities — in school, at work, at home, in healthcare environments, and in the community. Literacy is everybody’s business.

What are some of the projects you’ve been involved with that you would like to share?
BC Literacy Forum – advancing literacy and learning
The Literacy Forum showcases literacy initiative, innovation, experience, and best practice. Our goal is to engage in dialogue about literacy and improve literacy education.  Literacy is the key to opportunity for individuals, families, and communities. Come join us! If we band together, we can boost literacy levels from coast to coast to coast.

Community of Expertise in Educational Technology (CEET)
CEET is an online community for educators interested in teaching with technology.

Collaborative Authoring
Education for a Digital World: Advice, Guidelines, and Effective Practice from Around the Globe, was published by the Commonwealth of Learning and BCcampus in July 2008. It can be downloaded at the CoL website: http://www.col.org/digitalworld.
Education for a Digital World 2.0: Innovations in Education is being published by the Ministry of Education and will be available in print, pdf and as an e-book in March 2011.

The collaboratively authored books represent a shift in how educators are sharing their research, experiences and best practices in online teaching and learning. Facilitated completely through virtual interactions, this new model of authoring went beyond writing and editing to become an international effort in community building and professional growth.

Open Educational Resources for Open Schools An initiative of the Commonwealth of Learning in collaboration with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Ministries of Education and Open Schools in Zambia, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Seychelles and Trinidad and Tobago.

Professional Learning Potlucks

I host free and open Moodle Meets or Professional Learning Potlucks.  Ursula Franklin says that an analogy of the perfect society is a potluck supper. “A society in which all can contribute, and all can find friendship, that those who bring things, bring things that they do well and in the end there is a variety of things. All share their talents and all belong. ” Her analogy fits perfectly with these collaborative professional learning events.

What keeps you inspired?

Working collaboratively to create meaningful, relevant and accessible learning opportunities.  I envision a world classroom, whereby people from every country; regardless of age, color, race, gender or wealth, have equitable access to completely free, on demand, personalized education.

James Martin (The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future) says the people of today will, “more than at any other time in history, make a spectacular difference to what happens this century – and there needs to be an absolute crusading determination to bring change about.” (James Martin, page 398).  It is change, and the promise of global unrestricted access to knowledge, that is inherent in my professional activities.

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Free Spreadsheets to Help You Manage Your Language Program

February 14, 2011

Spreadsheets are an easy way to keep track of information. For smaller language schools and literacy programs that do not have access to the sophisticated information management systems or learning management systems (LMS), spreadsheets are a useful way to organize, update and archive all kinds of data, such as administrative, financial, class and student information.

Here’s a free, downloadable resource that I developed to help language school administrators develop their own spreadsheets. It’s a set of sample spreadsheets, that you can use as a template to develop your own spreadsheets.

There are four spreadsheets in this series:

  • Class and administrative information
  • Student progress spreadsheet
  • Class schedule
  • Cost breakdown and course costs

Language school spreadsheets

I prepared these spreadsheets on a Mac and so I’ve saved them in .pdf format so that anyone can have a look at them. If you’re a Mac user and you’d like the original Numbers file, send me an e-mail at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com and I’ll forward the file. If you work in Excel or with Google Docs, you can create your own spreadsheets using these criteria or others that make sense for your program.

Related posts:

Free Webinar – How to Use Google Forms

Language School Application and Photo Release

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Strategy for Learning Vocabulary: Building Confidence with Cognates

February 11, 2011

This week in my adult education Spanish class, we delved into vocabulary building, focusing on cognates. The students enjoyed themselves and “got lost in the learning”.

By the end of the class, they had created their own vocabulary lists and were energized to learn more words. Here’s an overview of the activity:

Define the word “cognate”

Cognates are words that look or sound the same in two or more languages and have the same, or a very similar, meaning.

Give examples of common cognates

For English and Spanish, there are loads of cognates. I chose examples in both masculine and feminine, as well as singular and plural:

el chocolate – the chocolate

la música – the music

los elefantes – the elephants

las naciones – the nations

Give them an authentic language example

Especially with adult learners, what they learn needs to be relevant and useful. Sometimes standard textbooks provide vocabulary that will be of little use to them in their everyday lives. (I mean really, do adults need to know how to say how many pieces of chalk there are in a classroom? Especially in today’s world? And yet, the textbooks we use still have vocabulary such as this in the introductory chapters. I think this is mostly because “that’s how it’s always been done”. From my experience, I can see my learners’ eyes glazing over with boredom when we have to learn vocabulary by rote that really has no relevance to them as working and professional adults who want to travel or do business abroad.

I keep to balance what we need to cover in our textbooks with real life examples of words they might encounter during their travels.

For this activity, I have a selection of magazines in a variety of topics including news, business, science, fashion, home and garden and even mechanics. There are enough magazines so that each student can chose one.

Have them seek and identify cognates

The students are challenged to find as many cognates as they can in their magazine in a given time period. I usually give them 5-10 minutes. I challenge them to find at least 10 new words – and hint that they can probably find 30 or 40, maybe more. Giving them a time limit keeps them on task and focussed.

Record the cognates

Students write down the words they can pick out and recognize. I tell them to add el, la, los, or las in front of the word to remind them of its number and gender. This turns the passive activity of identifying the cognates into an active activity of building their own vocabulary list. The act of writing it down engages them more and personalizes the learning as they build their list.

Share their cognates

Since each person has a different magazine, each will have identified and recorded different words. Once the time is up, students then work in pairs or groups of three to share their magazines and vocabulary lists. Each can add to their own list by learning from their peers.

Large group debrief

Once the students have shared in small groups, we debrief the entire activity reflecting on the process itself, as well as the new vocabulary lists they have built in a short period of time. Students inevitably report heightened feelings of confidence and interest as they find they can identify words from authentic materials. They become aware of the process involved in building their own vocabulary, recognizing that writing the words down will help them remember.

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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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