This is one of the most common questions beginners ask. Intermediate and advanced students already know: long. But beginners usually try to estimate the period of time they will need to accomplish this task.
To answer this question, I ask them first to define the terms: what does “learn a language” mean to you? Does it mean to learn enough vocabulary and basic grammar so as not to get lost in an English-speaking country or does it mean to be able to work in an English speaking country and communicate with native speakers without considerable difficulty? Or perhaps you mean to become truly bilingual and feel equally comfortable in either language – your mother tongue or English.
This is the very first question all of us need to answer before we set out on the journey of a foreign or second language learning. The time frame for learning will depend greatly upon the purpose and the scope of the skills you intend to master.
If you are simply going on a short-term vacation and you need the tourist minimum – it might take just a few weeks. If you’re attempting to immigrate and acculturate in an English-speaking country and feel relatively comfortable at work and day-to-day situations, probably a few years. If it is to become truly bilingual, it might take your entire life, or the answer might be “never.” It sounds harsh, but it is the only answer I can give you if I want to be 100% honest. So, when any particular school, instructor, or “innovative method” promises you that you’ll learn a foreign language in 10 days, bear in mind what you can realistically hope to accomplish: to get the very minimum and that is it. If you want to become really proficient, it will take a lot of time and effort on your part.
There are a few other aspects that greatly impact your prospects of learning. Here they are:
- Ability – Unfortunately, we are each born with different sets of abilities. Some of us are talented musicians or artists, others are not. Some of us have an innate (natural) ability for mathematics, physics, and other exact sciences, but others don’t. Just like with any other talent, some of us have a natural ability for languages and seem to just “breathe” the language from the environment. For some they can internalize difficult grammar structures, vocabulary, slang, etc. without a lot of effort. Others, whereas, try hard to understand and memorize each little piece, and still don’t accomplish as much. The truth is: memory can’t always help when it comes to learning a language; there are other important factors, like:
- Flexibility when we don’t understand something (it is called tolerance to ambiguity),
- Abstract thinking (a different language usually has a different organizational structure and logic),
- The so-called “phonetic ear” – ability to hear and mimic foreign sounds, and a few other abilities.
- Age – When we are young (especially up to the age of puberty), our brain’s natural ability to acquire a language is quite strong. As we age, our brain gets more set in its ways and languages become more difficult to learn.
- Need – When students come to my class to study English in the US, it is quite clear WHY they need it. And even then I interview them about their specific needs in life: do they need English for their job, doctor’s visits, grocery shopping, their children’s schooling, etc. But when an American is hiring me as a Russian tutor, the first question I ask is “What do you need Russian for?” The reason I ask this is: without an actual need, people lose their interest in a foreign language learning rather quickly. It requires time, effort, money, and commitment on their part and people don’t realize just how much of all that they will need.
- Personality – Outgoing people usually progress faster than shy people because they’re not afraid of their errors and feel more relaxed in situations when they don’t have everything under control. Perfectionists- people who want to do everything perfectly – have a very hard time in a language classroom, because it is not realistic to start speaking a foreign language without mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, even native speakers. “It is human to err” in general, and simply unavoidable when studying a language. So relax, don’t be shy and afraid to “sound stupid” or to be less than perfect because EVERYBODY in your class goes through the same process as you, and EVERYBODY understands your challenges.
- Attitude – While flexibility and tolerance of mistakes – your own and others’– is a great help, you will still need to work hard, because long hours of study and practice are necessary to advance. You need to be ready to invest a lot of time and effort to this cause. You will also need to be a good teammate with other students in the class (if you’re studying English in a class setting) and not only help others but be helped by others when need be.
- Can you think of other factors? Please share.