Language: time to learn

Ken Carroll (among other things, co-founder of the Chinese Pod language-learning site) wrote about language and social distance — for example, how traditional language study can leave the student with formal and even inappropriate phrasing.

I followed a comment by Orlando Kelm, a language professor, to his own post about learning a foreign language. There he quotes an estimate of “around 500 hours for native speakers of English to obtain an intermediate level of proficiency… in Spanish, French, etc.”

With the 10,000-hours-for-expertise notion still simmering slowly on my mental stove, I did some quick-and-dirty math:

I took four years of French in high school, though none of the three schools I attended had a language lab. Call that 45 minutes x 180 days x 4 years, or 540 hours. Knock off 40 hours for inattention (ha!); add 150 or so for study or practice outside of class.

That’s about 650 hours before age 18. (I took some French in college, but again, no language lab, and the courses were more civilization and culture.)

"Paris Opera on strike!"

So what? My unscientific conclusions:

  • Timing matters. You can begin learning a language at any age (Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, began studying Turkish in his late 50s while papal nuncio to Turkey). All things being equal, though, earlier is better.
  • Motivation matters. I wanted to learn French, and my first teacher, Brother André, was an encouraging, skillful teacher and a native speaker.
  • Pathways matter. Although I used French very little after college, I didn’t abandon it completely. When the opportunity arose to use it (two trips to France since 2000), I felt as though I had to clear away mental debris. Some of what I’d learned never really left, though it sure was hiding well.

As Bill Deterline said, things take longer than they do. I wonder if there isn’t some combination of time and effort related to learning and habit. Dr. Ken Cooper, who developed the idea of aerobics, wrote about exercising 3 or 4 times a week for 6 weeks in order to develop “the training effect.”

Imagine that as the apprentice level of skill: you’ve made the commitment and have acquired the absolute basics. You’ve invested 30 minutes or so a day for 6 weeks, or 50 hours (give or take).

The intermediate status that Kelm talks about might be an example of a journeyman level — 500 hours. You’re not an amateur any more. In fact, at the same time you sense your abilities and know all too well your limitations.

Levitin’s 10,000 hours takes you to the master level.

I don’t want to stretch the notions farther then they merit; I see them just as metaphorical waystations on a spectrum of ability.

Photo (“Paris Opera on strike!”) by Philippe Leroyer.

6 thoughts on “Language: time to learn

  1. Just a word about the 500 hours.
    I like to divide ACTFL guidelines roughly as follows: novice = memorized chunks; intermediate = sentence-level communication; advanced = paragraph-level communication. What I notice is that advanced level speakers can tell stories and connect their ideas. When people tell a story about their first airplane ride, their favorite pet, an experience while on vacation, etc. those are advanced tasks. 500 hours gets people to the point where they can start doing that. So take your experience in French as ask yourself if you are into paragraph-level story telling or are you still in sentence-level production. Hope that helps.

  2. Thanks, Orlando. Based on your description, your “advanced” seems to be the journeyman level I had in mind… you can put ideas together into large chunks (the paragraphs), but there’s probably a limit on the size of those chunks.

  3. I’ve often told people that ask about learning Chinese that “it’s cake after the first 1500 or so hours.” I’m probably not the “model student,” so it’s probably not too bad after 750 or so solid hours of study. There is a lot to be said for just showing up and putting in the work — natural gifts are great, but other than perhaps for athletes they aren’t determiners of success.

  4. John, i think you’re right about just showing up as one factor.

    I think many people here in the U.S. have had unfortunate experiences with other languages — like the forced marches through grammar or the absence of any models or application outside of language class. (That’s not to detract from many dedicated and creative language teachers.)

    Not all work is the same, though. In his book, Levitin talks about having wanted to learn the guitar as a child but being made to learn piano.

    So banging your head against conjugations or declensions might not be as beneficial in terms of effort as, say, having to ask someone out for coffee.

  5. That’s true — I suppose with any sort of exercise, mental or physical, there’s a right and wrong way to do it (or at least a more or less effective way). What seems to make language teaching so difficult is how much the right and wrong way varies for each learner.

  6. It’s probably the case that there are more effective and less effective ways.

    I wonder whether, in the learning-language field (or perhaps the teaching-language field), you don’t run into some of the problems that Thomas Gilbert saw as part of “the great cult of behavior.” (He vigorously urged focusing first on accomplishment, rather than on how people behaved [acted].)

    I can easily imagine an overemphasis on work for its own sake, or on piles of information (memorization of rules, say), or on motivation as the key to success.

    (I mentioned another aspect of Gilbert’s work when I talked about his model for creating incompetence.

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