How long will I need to learn a foreign language?
| A couple of years ago, a Spanish girl, about
20 years old, answered one of my ads for English classes. She had a
very low level of English, but had decided that she now wanted to learn
it once and for all. During our initial conversation,
she asked me straight out: "¿Cuánto tiempo necesito para
aprender inglés?" - "How long will it take
me to learn English?"
I admit that I
was speechless for a second (and this doesn't happen very often!). I
replied: "Well, if you have a photographic
memory, an excellent and refined sense of hearing, a profound knowledge
of the grammar in your own language, an IQ of at least 150, and if you
are willing to work on it for no less than 8
hours a day, you'll be speaking fluently in less than a month!"
That "less than
a month" part was probably what put the delighted smile on her face,
but then, looking more serious, she asked: "And if I don't have all
those qualities?" I answered: "Then you're probably looking at a few
years, that is, unless you decide to spend this summer in
England or America, in which case you'll
progress more quickly."
mastering a foreign language has much to do with
our natural talents. Years ago, I read an article about the German
Grand Master of Chess, Robert Hübner. It seems that he had to go
to Hungary for a tournament, but unfortunately, didn't speak the
language. No problem! He bought himself a good book, boarded the train,
and when he arrived in Budapest after an eight-hour journey, he could
speak Hungarian more than well enough to get by.
Of course, Herr Hübner almost no doubt does have a photographic memory, an extremely
high IQ, and so on.
I myself have
nowhere near the mental brilliance of a Robert Hübner (if my
accomplishments, years ago, on my college chess team are any measure of
this), though I am certainly not without talent
as far as language learning is concerned.
The truth is, I
think most people can pick up another language in a year, as I did with Spanish, if they go about it the right
way (see the article in this book: "The
absolute best way to learn a language quickly"). Not that it can't
be done in less time, for I feel it can, especially if you are willing
to spend more time in a foreign country. On the
other hand, if you are unwilling, or unable to spend any time at all in
a country where your target language is spoken, it will probably be very difficult indeed to reach fluency within a
year (unless, of course, you have the opportunity to converse
frequently with native speakers of that language while staying in your
own country - something most of us would find either very difficult, or
very expensive, to arrange).
A key concept
here is "commitment". Have you really committed yourself to learning a foreign language fluently? If so, you will take the
necessary steps, including making a financial investment, to reach that
goal. While living in Spain, I knew more people than I could count who said they really wanted to learn English, but
who then did not "walk the walk": they skipped classes, stopped
learning completely whenever the holidays came around, didn't take the
time to memorize new
vocabulary words, and so on. Personally, I would rather not even start
than try to progress like this, for it's a sure path to frustration,
and perhaps even eventual failure.
Of course, in
many of these cases, those people only wanted to learn English because
they thought it would help them get ahead at their job (or find a job,
should they have been unemployed at the time); what they were lacking
is passion, so it's only natural that
they didn't make a serious commitment to their supposed "goal". When
such people ask for my advice on how to proceed, I will often tell them
to forget it - that is, until they are seriously willing to do
what it takes to learn. If not, why waste time fooling yourself into thinking you are really progressing,
when in fact your lack of dedication is slowing down progress almost to
a halt? If the day comes when they feel that now, they not only think
they "should" learn English, but are truly enthusiastic about
doing so, it would then be the right time to
start, with all the zeal at their disposal. That's
when progress will not only be rapid, but will seem practically
effortless. That's when they will be
able to learn more English, in a single year, than they had in the
previous five or ten years, while they were engaged in a
half-hearted, and therefore nearly futile,
effort to learn.
commitment to your goal, and follow through on it with enthusiasm, even
obsession: that's the surest ticket to learning a foreign language in