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.)
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 AndrÃ©, 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.