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 2-hour adult education course over 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
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.