“To become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about ten years. (Only the legendary Bobby Fisher got to that elite level in less than that amount of time: it took him nine years.) And what’s ten years? Well, it’s roughly how long it takes to put in ten thousand hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” and then “In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers (violinists) had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice.” from The Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (published by Little, Brown and Company on November 18, 2008)
While teaching a group of University students this past week who were taking my “college English” class to try to boost their level before taking make-up exams or starting a new semester, I was shocked and dismayed at their seeming ignorance of how much effort goes into learning a language. Hmmm…these students were definitely in need of a “wake up call”, a “reality check” or an electroshock! Most of them had put off “practicing” their English so that they could concentrate on more “noble” and demanding core subjects such as math, economy, business management, etc. which were at the forefront of their majors. However when they discovered that they had to have a certain “grade” or “score” in English in order to graduate or enter the next year’s curriculum, they signed up for my 30 hour 1-week intensive course in hopes that they could improve their level just enough to pass. Some of them could barely speak but yet when they showed me their exam subjects, I gulped in shock as I silently realized the chasm between what they were expected to know and what in reality they could do. Astounding! Such is the system in France where subjects are “weighted” according to their importance in a given major. Physics, Math and Science subjects usually weigh more than English which is why some students put aside learning it so that they can concentrate on their “heavier more weighted” classes. But lo and behold…some schools are realizing that in certain majors (Engineering, Law, Business management, marketing, etc.), students are being asked by companies to speak English fluently in order to get a job so schools are now requiring their students to “pass” English or get a certain score on the TOEIC or TOEFL (ETS Language Proficiency Exams) in order to graduate…without having prepared them adequately to do so. Eek! So they come to me in desperation and hope that in one week they can make up for years of not practicing their English…some of them even have more than 10 years behind them without understanding or speaking but a few words…what a tragic waste of time! But is the school system’s fault? I’ve seen what the kids do in high schools and even at the University. They’re given every opportunity to learn the language but…as the old saying goes…“you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink!” It’s like taking years of piano lessons and not touching the keyboard….
As the week progressed, the students began to realize the enormous task that was before them as I tried to drum 10 years worth of language lessons into 30 hours with texts, grammar exercises, audio and video tasks, paired practice and group discussions with a few games thrown in to lighten the atmosphere somewhat. To make them perform, we examined one of Steve Jobs’s Ipad presentations in which he goes through all the amazing features and fantastic innovations that his new product had to offer. I asked my students to inspire themselves with Steve’s sales pitch and to think of a new product that they could sell to the class (we being the consumer target group) using as many superlatives as they could think of in the Steve Jobs’ style. All of the students in the class did a fantastic job using a lot of: the best, the number one product in its class, amazing, revolutionary innovation, a breakthrough in the world of…, etc. But one fictitious product caught my ear…a miraculous breakthrough pill that you could ingest to become bilingual…”blue” for English, “Yellow” for Spanish, “green” for German, “red” for Chinese, etc. with no known side effects! Amazing! We all voted for our “favorite” product and guess which one won? You’re right! The “Bilingual” pill! A decade’s worth of effort in one pill! Marvelous! If it could only work.
I did a reality check with my students when I told them that based on statistics in order to reach an advanced level of fluency they would need more than 1200 hours (600 “class” hours + 600 practice hours)! Seeing their dejected faces…I told them not to worry! Learning a language is a lifelong process and reaching fluency needs a lot of perseverance and practice (my French is constantly improving…one step backward and two steps forward…or something like that). In addition, to continue to make progress, you must work on the 4 major skills (reading and listening comprehension and speaking and writing skills) with a 5th skill thrown in which is “interaction” skills (or social skills)…knowing what to say, how to say it, and when to say it!
Here’s an approximate list of class hours to learn a foreign language according to the FSI or American Foreign Service Institute (that you have to multiply by 2 or 3 to reach proficiency):
- Languages Close to English (Afrikaans, Catalan, Danish, Dutch, French, Galician, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish: 600 class hours, 1200 to 1800 “practice” hours
FSI Language Difficulty Rankings
|Language||Category||Class Hours Required|
Source: National Virtual Translation Center, “Languages of the World”
Of course a lot depends on the age of the learner. Learning a language before the age of 6 is a different cognitive and mental process from learning a language when the language centers of the brain are more mature and less receptive (see Birdsong, D., ed. 1999 Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis). Also learning a language in a classroom environment is a lot less effective than learning a language when totally immersed in it as is the case with a lot of immigrants who pick up the language of their host country far more quickly and with far less effort.
What I didn’t tell my students (Shhh…I didn’t want to totally discourage them) was about an interesting study I read this summer in the Harvard Business Review based on Florida State University Professor K. Anders Ericsson’s research on skill and working memory entitled “The Making of an Expert” (July-August 2007) makes the case for spending 10 times the number of hours if you want to achieve expertise in a skill which requires memory and motor skills (a sport, music, speaking a foreign language, etc.). In other words, to become an expert in a skill which takes practice and memorization…you need 10,000 hours!
Malcolm Gladwell expounded on this idea in his book “The Outliers: The Story of Success” in which he explains how many famous athletes, musicians (the Beatles) and computer specialists (Bill Gates) became experts in their fields by putting in the 10,000 hours plus practice hours.
Thus if we extrapolate and consider “fluency” to be the goal for any language learner, then that would mean spending 10,000 hours to acquire expertise in a language. Hmmm…that’s a lot more than the 1200 hours that I had originally believed. After reading this study, I began to calculate why so many of my French students did not become “fluent” after 8 years of study:
- Typical French student: 96 hours of class per year for 8 years = 768 hours of language instruction
- Typical Immigrant in Host Country: 365 days (16 hours per day) = 5840 hours
After doing this quick calculation, I realized that my French students would need 80 more years (!!)…yes 80 more years to become fluent compared to just 1 more year for the typical immigrant who is bent on learning the language of his host country. No wonder my students can’t speak! Pop psychology or well-founded research?
Well…obviously this way seems too easy and polished to calculate the often complex and diverse way people learn languages especially when we consider that most people acquire fluency by practicing in formal and informal ways combining classroom training with outside training so it’s difficult to calculate exactly how many hours it’s going to take us to acquire a foreign language but still….the research shows that constant practice is the price we must pay to be an expert in an acquired skill or “fluent” in a language and I think this is what most of my students lack…PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE!
And maybe most of my students would settle for a level slightly inferior to “fluent” making a few mistakes here and there. Most people’s goal would settle on just speaking the language well…even while making a few mistakes. The purpose is not always to speak the language perfectly but to be able to speak well enough and to understand what others are saying.
One last thought: K. Anders Ericsson added a secret to becoming “an expert”: If you don’t love what you’re doing, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good at it. Deliberate practice has three key components: setting specific goals; obtaining immediate feedback; and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.”