How long does it take to learn a language enough to be able to use it?
First, I would like to say that I wrote a post on Sociolinguistics and language learning over at I Want 2 Speak Thai, so I hope you’ll take a moment to head over and check it out! It’s my first guest post on another blog and I am really excited to have had the opportunity. Thank you Travis!
One of the things that I really enjoy doing is teaching and passing on the things that I’ve learned to others. This passion started when I was still in high school – I tutored other students in English during my lunch hour and started a website that featured advice articles for young musicians (which still exists today). As an undergraduate, I coached music students at two middle schools and in recent years, this love has manifested itself in the form of private tutoring – I teach music lessons and French (and sometimes English to French speakers). Having taught both music and foreign language, I’ve found a lot of similarities in teaching and learning methods. I certainly understand why people say that music is a language.
A question that I am often asked (for both music and language) is “how long will it take me to speak fluently?” Or in the case of music, “how long will it take me to play ‘fluently’ (to perform well)?” My answer for both is at least three to five years. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t perform in either music or languages until that point – you should be using the skills you are developing in performance and practice everyday. Whether you are learning new words or new notes, use them! The quickest way to improve is by putting what you know into practice. You will never get over your fear of performing or conversing if you never do those activities.
Three to five years can seem like a significant investment to some, especially today when we have grown so accustomed to immediate gratification. We can download and gain access to pretty much anything immediately and at a low-cost. I still remember when I had to save for weeks to have the $15-20 for an album and then wait again for my parents to drive me to the store to buy it. Now, I can download whatever I want for $9.99 an album and even less for a song. We are so used to having everything now, that making a three to five-year commitment for certain things seems unfathomable. I also have seen first hand with many of my students, that if they don’t see immediate progress, they quickly become discouraged. I could take short cuts with them and teach them “tricks” to improve quickly, but it won’t help them in the long run. It’s like cramming for a test – you can learn a lot of material quickly, but you won’t retain it.
If you really think about it, three to five years to learn to speak a language (or play an instrument) isn’t that long. For example, a child learning their first language takes five years to become totally fluent (and still that fluency is limited), and even then, they make mistakes in punctuation, with grammar, and with vocabulary choice. In fact, most children spend the better part of their first 18 years learning grammar and new vocabulary in school and will never know the majority of words in their language. The same can be said for music, where grammar and vocabulary are technique and style.
It is believed that the average person has anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 words in their vocabulary. This being said, you could know 20,000 words in five languages before your vocabulary database is “maxed out.” The average person also only uses about 3,000 to 5,000 words of their vocabulary to communicate on a daily basis, meaning you only need 5,000 words in another language to be “fluent.” The difference between the 5,000 words we actually use and 20,000+ words we know is quite significant. The reason the average vocabulary varies between 5,000 to 20,000 words is because we have what are called “active” and “passive” vocabularies. The active vocabulary includes the 3,000 to 5,000 words we use in everyday communication while the remaining 15,000 to 17,000 (to make 20,000 total) are known as passive. They are words that we understand but do not use regularly in communication. So, for example, we all may know what the word precocious means, but we are unlikely to use it in everyday conversations.
This difference is known as high frequency versus low frequency words. High frequency words are those that are used often in conversation or text, so an example of a high frequency word in English would be come, one or go while low frequency words would be a word like punctual.
But all in all, it doesn’t matter if you know 10 or 50,000 thousand words if you can’t use them in a sentence. This being said, The Linguist, or LingQ, speaks ten languages and never focused on grammar. Instead, he focuses on learning languages through listening and reading. In my opinion, this is a much more enjoyable way to learn languages so that you don’t have to labor through grammar books. It also gets you speaking much quicker!
So what are your thoughts on language learning and the kind of investment it takes?
For more great articles on the subject:
1. World Wide Words
2. Television Learning: Do Foreign Films Really Help You Learn Another Language?
For more language learning tips like this, check out my collection of articles on Pinterest!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.