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How long does it REALLY take to learn ___?

  Tags: Time to learn
 Language Learning Forum : Learning Techniques, Methods & Strategies Post Reply
15 messages over 2 pages: 1 2  Next >>
Bilingual Tetraglot
United States
Joined 2113 days ago

66 posts - 155 votes 
Speaks: English*, Portuguese*, Spanish, French
Studies: Mandarin

 Message 1 of 15
01 November 2014 at 8:41pm | IP Logged 
Many of you are already familiar with the ILR Scale and Foreign Service Institute
(FSI) estimates, based on extensive empirical observation, of how long it takes to
learn a variety of languages. Just in case, here are a couple of links: v/lotw/months/november/learningExpectations.html

When this information is cited, people often focus exclusively on the classroom hours.
For example, for an adult native English speaker who is highly educated, motivated and
already a polyglot, learning a Category 1 language like Portuguese from scratch to
ILR 3 level takes approximately 600 class hours.

However, it is essential to note that the FSI students are also dedicating 3-4 hours
daily to directed self-study, and no mention is made of possible additional contact
with the language during “free” time. The latter would become especially relevant for
Category 4 languages, where an entire year of study is done in-country. I’m assuming
many students, during their free time, are watching TV in L2, in addition to going out
and making friends.

I also have not found information as to how long one would take on average to get from
ILR 3 to ILR 4 and then ILR 5. My guess is that you would have to approximately double
the total time in each case, because of the law of diminishing returns. For example,
while knowing 5,000 words might get you to ILR 3 because they represent 95% of the
spoken and written language (these numbers are fictitious and meant only to
illustrate), you might need 10,000 words to get to 98% comprehension or ILR 4 because
word frequencies diminish so much, and 20,000 to attain 99.8% comprehension or ILR 5
(educated native equivalency level). Idiomatic expressions, colloquialisms, cultural
references, and native-like pronunciation and accent are necessary to get to these
higher levels (especially ILR 5), which also can take a ridiculous amount of time to
achieve (if ever).

I should also note that in my opinion, as long as you are highly focused and engaged,
avoiding certain pitfalls, and consciously trying to learn and improve, whether you
are studying formally or immersing yourself in reading and conversation, you will be
progressing efficiently. Therefore it is reasonable to sum formal study to self study
and even informal contact (as long as it is highly engaged and deliberate).

An additional question mark for me is that the FSI references only speaking and
reading levels 3, whereas writing is not mentioned. Writing, especially with non-Roman
alphabets, is an entirely different skill.

Based on these lines of reasoning, I have come up with a little table to estimate how
many hours of study/immersion it really takes a native English speaking adult polyglot
to achieve ILR levels 3, 4, and 5. Basically, all I did was add the FSI class hours to
the self-study hours (putting both at the higher end) to get total hours to ILR 3,
then doubled that amount to ILR 4, which I doubled again to ILR 5. I did not consider
any additional time for "free" study or for learning to write, though a more careful
estimate probably should.

Unfortunately, I do not know how to paste or create tables here, so I'm separating
columns with a backslash (/).

Cat. / FSI class hours / FSI self-study / ILR 3 / ILR 4 / ILR 5

1 / 600 / 576 / 1176 / 2352 / 4704
2&3 / 1100 / 1056 / 2156 / 4312 / 8624
4 / 2200 / 2464 / 4664 / 9328 / 18656

These are obviously wild estimates that would allow for a tremendous amount of
variation. My purpose here is not to provide any answers, but rather to initiate a
discussion and try to reach a consensus or a better level of understanding through
this forum.

Partly for fun, and partly as a basis of comparison, I also made rough estimates of
how long it took me to get to levels 3, 4, and 5 for French, Spanish, and Portuguese
(all Category 1 languages for me). I should note that my French is very rusty and in
this case I have projected that I would need an additional 2 months or 365 hours to
attain Level 3 for French (which is included in the total). Spanish undoubtedly
benefited tremendously from my Portuguese. In this regard, it would be easier than a
Category 1 language for me. I have also included English (my maternal tongue), which I
learned to an educated native level as a child, and Mandarin, in which I still
consider myself a total beginner. The Year / Age is when I attained the level I
estimated in the previous columns, and Hours refers to a very rough estimate
of how many hours I had of CONTACT with the language, including a tiny bit of formal
study in each case but MUCH MORE informal contact (mostly conversation and reading).

One of the reasons the hours are in general much higher than my above estimates (based
on ILR numbers) is that the learning occurred over many years or decades, and was
therefore subject to a continuous process of forgetting and recuperating.

Language     Subjective level     IRL Level     Year / Age     Hours

Portuguese / Native / 5 / 2003 / 8,232
Spanish / Semi-native fluency / 4 / 2010 / 2,018
French / Advanced Fluency / 3 / + 2 months / 1,220

Mandarin / Total beginner / 0 / - / 170
English / Native (maternal) / 5 / 12 yrs / 23,660

I have records of exactly how I reached these rough estimates, and can provide a lot
of further context, details, and interpretation on my personal language studies /
acquisition if anyone is interested.

One of the many reasons I am interested in this issue is to better contextualize my
hypothesis of an estimated 1,200 hours to reach an low intermediate to intermediate
level of oral Mandarin comprehension through my experimental approach (exclusively
watching authentic videos).

Please share your thoughts, opinions, and personal experiences!

Edited by victorhart on 01 November 2014 at 9:49pm

1 person has voted this message useful

Ezy Ryder
Senior Member
Joined 2755 days ago

284 posts - 387 votes 
Speaks: Polish*, English
Studies: Mandarin, Japanese

 Message 2 of 15
01 November 2014 at 9:13pm | IP Logged 
The problem is, as we say in Polish "godzina godzinie nie równa." Meaning, "one hour isn't equal
to another." So, an hour's of FSI classroom effectivity might be different to this of an average
college class', which may be different to that of immersion's.
3 persons have voted this message useful

Bilingual Tetraglot
United States
Joined 2113 days ago

66 posts - 155 votes 
Speaks: English*, Portuguese*, Spanish, French
Studies: Mandarin

 Message 3 of 15
01 November 2014 at 9:16pm | IP Logged 
Ezy Ryder wrote:
The problem is, as we say in Polish "godzina godzinie nie równa."
Meaning, "one hour isn't equal
to another." So, an hour's of FSI classroom effectivity might be different to this of an
college class', which may be different to that of immersion's.

That is one of the many reasons these are rough estimates. That does not preclude the
utility of having parameters.
3 persons have voted this message useful

Senior Member
Joined 2659 days ago

544 posts - 1141 votes 
Speaks: Finnish*, English, Swedish
Studies: Russian

 Message 4 of 15
01 November 2014 at 11:03pm | IP Logged 
I have my own entirely arbitrary yet somehow neat reference thing for how long it actually will take. I usually use "hours" but as pointed out by mr. Ryder one hour is not necessarily equivalent to that of another in terms of effectiveness and such, so I will use the word 'pollywog' in its stead (hereon abbreviated as pw, not to be confused with picoWatts).

I'm using the CEFR scale here even though it's totally arbitrary as well.

A1 - 32 pw
A2 - 80 pw
B1 - 200 pw
B2 - 500 pw
C1 - 1250 pw
C2 - ???

The logic here is that in order to advance into a new level you'll have to multiply your study hours by 2,5 (or add 150%). So in order to advance say, from B1 to B2 you'd have to first spend 200 pollywogs studying yourself to B1, 100 pollywogs strengthening what you already know and 200 pollywogs learning new stuff, and that would constitute an increase in level.

Whenever I'm about to start a new language project I just think to myself "do I want to spend 500 pollywogs doing this?" and I find that it's a nice rule of thumb.
5 persons have voted this message useful

Senior Member
Joined 4005 days ago

725 posts - 1351 votes 

 Message 5 of 15
01 November 2014 at 11:39pm | IP Logged 
That's nice, pollywogs usually gather themselves in big quantities, as should your learning sessions in order to reach a high scale.
1 person has voted this message useful

Joined 2288 days ago

54 posts - 87 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: Spanish

 Message 6 of 15
02 November 2014 at 3:35am | IP Logged 
The idea of quantifying learning into discrete units is amusing:

25 minutes of intense focus and analysis is worth 10 LU (language units).
2 hours of lazy reading with haphazard and infrequent dictionary referencing is worth... 5 LU?
A 5 minute conversation with a native yields 10. But when it directly follows formal instruction, their is a 1.3 multiplier effect!
Daily study adds a baseline multiplier of 1.1; missed days incur penalties.

Not useful, obviously, but I do know that for Anki's statistics and my own personal records, I can pretty much take whatever times Anki
gives me and multiply it by 1.5 to get the actual time. I'll spend 30 minutes on Anki and it shows 20 in the program. For the same reason,
it makes more sense to count the number of pages read rather than time spent reading - one is inherently more reliable than another.

Of course, there's another way to see things, too.
2 persons have voted this message useful

Senior Member
Russian Federation
Joined 5003 days ago

9753 posts - 15777 votes 
4 sounds
Speaks: Russian*, English, FinnishC1, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese
Studies: Danish, Romanian, Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Croatian, Slovenian, Catalan, Czech, Galician, Dutch, Swedish

 Message 7 of 15
02 November 2014 at 6:23am | IP Logged 
Can one be a pollyglot without knowing the word pollywog? ;) I don't even know it in Finnish :(
1 person has voted this message useful

Senior Member
Joined 3836 days ago

2704 posts - 5424 votes 
Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
Studies: Polish

 Message 8 of 15
02 November 2014 at 6:32am | IP Logged 
I think that the figures in the OP are basically irrelevant to the experiment at hand. All these figures are based on
some form of instruction or structured learning. What is sorely lacking is figures on purely self-learning and, more
specifically, on the proposed method of learning exclusively by watching authentic videos in Mandarin.

I don't know how correct the figures are but if my understanding is correct after 170 hours of this method with
Mandarin there has been virtually no progress. I'll admit that 170 hours is not a lot but that's the equivalent of three
hours a day for nearly two months. A lot can be learned of a language in that time.

But more importantly there is no evidence that this method of just looking at incomprehensible videos can produce
any significant kind of receptive knowledge at all! I'm totally in favour of experimentation but I don't see the point of
this so-called experiment when everything we know about language learning says that it can't work.

2 persons have voted this message useful

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