Time Required to Learn a New Language
From APEC HRDWG Wiki
Though this question may appear simple, it is not so easy to answer. First, we must define some terms, such as time, student, master and new language. Whether or not the time in question is focused study time, with few other distractions or competing demands, and if this time is being spent in isolation with only books and recordings from which to learn the new language or surrounded by it in an environment filled with the related culture and native speakers of the language, all of these are very influential. For example, elementary students in Two-Way Immersion programs, where 90% of classroom instruction is presented in the target language and 10% in the native language with mixed classes where students and teachers with both language backgrounds are integrated most of the day, are shown to develop similar levels of language proficiency, including writing, and cultural understanding in both languages.
What types of students are referred to? The motivation, language learning history, environment of study, influence of peers and family, as well as physical and mental differences, all affect students. Of particular significance is the importance of informal contact, especially with peers.
Mastery of a new skill is an admirable goal, but how is it defined in terms of language. Does this mean that we assess the learners’ spoken fluency, evaluate his/her accent, test vocabulary range, assess reading comprehension, rate written essays? And, to what do we compare the resulting scores? To native speaker benchmarks or to other pre-set standards? If the latter, whose standards should be used? Moreover, whether or not the measurements accurately reflect the learners’ skill is another concern.
New language requires definition in that the degree of linguistic relationship between the students’ native language to the new language will also affect the outcome. Languages in similar groups are relatively easier for most to learn; whereas, languages in dissimilar linguistic groups can pose greater difficulty for many. Some of this effect is linguistic, while socio-cultural factors come into play as well.
That said, under the auspices of the APEC Strategic Plan for English and Other Languages, several researchers have come up with estimates of time required for various groups of learners, as well as points to consider when choosing how and where to learn a new language. These are reported in Section 2 "Adult English language acquisition and number of hours required for proficiency" of the APEC Checklist for English Language Programs. Though no specific period of time is mentioned for reaching proficiency in Chinese, the APEC Chinese Language Checklist does direct potential learners through a helpful set of factors to consider when preparing to study.
Effect of language education design on learning
Traditional second/foreign language programs typically provide limited instructional hours each week over a lengthy period of time. These have not been found to be very effective for acquiring a second language. Serrano and Munoz showed, in a controlled experiment with tertiary students in Spain, that students instructed via a curriculum structured around 110 hours of intensive or semi-intensive language instruction made significantly better achievements, based on pragmatic assessments of listening comprehension, reading, vocabulary, grammar and writing. However, studies continue to show a wide gap between the performance of average secondary school students on second or foreign languages and their native-speaking counterparts. For example, even after seven years of instruction (ranging from 2 to 4 hours per week), Dutch students learning French were performing about 25-30% lower on a variety of lexical measures. However, it should be noted that these students had the additional benefit of living in a French-speaking environment and were considered to have made significant progress in their learning.
Effect of context on learning
Results of a controlled study conducted in Japan and the US with students learning English showed that, in both EFL and ESL learner groups, accuracy and comprehension speed improved significantly over time. The magnitude of effect was much less for speed than for accuracy in the EFL group. On the other hand, ESL learners showed significant improvement in comprehension speed, but only marginal improvement in accuracy.
Moyer summarized a number of studies showing the particular significance of non-formal contact, especially with peers, and secondly, the effect of family attitude on learning a second or foreign language.
Mastering Language through Contextualized Vocabulary
One way to view the mastering of a new language is to analyze how much vocabulary one needs in order to communicate and how that vocabulary is contextualized. As summarized by Nation, “computer analysis shows that about 80% of the individual words in most written English texts are members of the 2000 most frequent word families, so that any second language reading course should ensure that its users meet and know these words…. After …that point learners should either rely on inferencing strategies or else move on to direct study of items that are frequent … in chosen areas of study…. The goal is to arrive at a point where 95% of the running words are known in an average text, which … is the point where independent reading and further acquisition through inference become reliable.”
This approach of focused, contextualized vocabulary acquisition has been promoted and commercialized by products using the Pimsleur method, which focuses on teaching commonly used words so that the learner develops a comprehensive oral/audio core vocabulary of approximately 600 words. Through this method, products currently on the market can guide the attentive learner to master this relatively small core in 60 units of 30 minutes each. However, as one key of the Pimsleur approach is graduated interval recall, a method of reviewing learned vocabulary at increasing longer intervals to help the student to move vocabulary into long-term memory, one cannot simply multiply 600 words in 30 hours by 3.3 to calculate that it will require 100 hrs to master a 2000-term vocabulary in a new language. The repeated recall will require increasing amounts of the learning time as the vocabulary size grows and Pimsleur found that limiting ‘lessons’ to 30 minutes each achieved optimum results. In addition, 80% comprehension of some languages requires many more than 2000 words.
One of the defining characteristics of context for vocabulary is grammar, the framework that holds words together meaningfully. Smith and Truscott provide a solid argument for considering acquisition and master of this framework in stages, defining markers for each learning stage. However, they don’t propose any time frame for accomplishing all the stages. Analyses of conversational awareness and successful language learning behaviors are another means of assessing which stage of language mastery a learner has achieved. However, trials in this research only ran several months, and that with tertiary students who had already achieved a certain level of foreign language proficiency.
Importance of Attitude in Language Learning
One factor that has limited many learners and turned classroom language learning into a less-than-ideal experience for a number of students is attitude. Intelligence tests rarely measure the qualities that successful language learning demands, such as perseverance, sensitivity, gaiety and persuasiveness, a point made by Pimsleur in his seminal book How to Learn a Foreign Language. Persistence and ingenuity appear to also play key roles, depending on the learning style of the language student (Kinerney, 2008). One neuroscientist has developed a theory of language deconstruction for learning, but not mastering, any language in one hour.
Combinations of programmed learning, repetition and significant rewards for achievement have fueled the success of many government and military language programs, such as those at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in the US. In this immersive classroom environment, full-time intensive language instruction, with concurrent classes in history and culture of the relevant countries may take up to two years for language mastery. The high degrees of motivation, regimentation and potential reward in such programs are not easily duplicated in other environments. Added to this is the fact that elementary pupils’ enthusiasm for learning a new foreign language declines after a year of instruction.
Dynamic Systems Theory has been used by several researchers to model the learning of first and second languages. Larsen-Freeman points out that learning is not simple linear growth on the basis of input. There are backslides, stagnations, and jumps; this unpredictability means it is not clear which instances of input or instruction lead to which instances of learning. De Bot notes that in language development input and output, as well as encouragement, motivation, attention, feedback, and time to learn, can be viewed as resources. Resources typically are limited and interlinked in a dynamic system. Memory capacity, input, time, and motivation are all limited, but they can be compensatory in the sense that a lack of time can, to a certain extent, be compensated for with higher motivation or more effort.
Over the years, a number of researchers have been frustrated by the chaotic research results obtained when trying to analyze factors influencing any group’s language learning progress. In summary, it is very likely that individual learners’ developmental tracks are influenced by factors like contact with the target language, attitudes, and socioeconomic factors, but the patterns of how these factors interact over time are likely to be different for individual learners, leaving little evidence on which to base an answer to the question, “How much time is required for students to master a new language?”
- ↑ Lindholm-Leary, K. (2001). Dual Language Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
- ↑ Serrano, R. and Howard, E. (2007). Second Language Writing Development in English and Spanish in a Two-Way Immersion Programme. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10(2), 152-170.
- ↑ Thomas, W. and Collier, V. (2003). A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long Term Academic Achievement. Research Report, Santa Cruz, CA and Washington, DC; Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence and Center for Applied Linguistics.
- ↑ Marchman, V. and Fernald, A. (2008). Speed of word recognition and vocabulary knowledge in infancy predict cognitive and language outcomes in later childhood Developmental Science 11(3), F9–F16.
- ↑ Metallidou, P. and Vlachou, A. (2007). Motivational beliefs, cognitive engagement, and achievement in language and mathematics in elementary school children, International Journal of Psychology 42(1), 2-15.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 Moyer, A. (2004). Accounting for Context and Experience in German (L2) Language Acquisition: A Critical Review of the Research, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 25(1), 41-61.
- ↑ Perdue, C. and Klein, W. (1992). Why does the production of some learners not grammaticalize? Studies in Second Language Acquisition 14, 259-272.
- ↑ Rohr-Sendlmeier, U. (1990). Social context and the acquisition of German by Turkish migrant children. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 11, 377-391.
- ↑ Urponen, M.I. (2004). Ultimate attainment in postpuberty second language acquisition. Dissertation, Boston University.
- ↑ Dornyei, Z. and Kormos, J. (2000). The role of individual and social variables in oral task performance, Language Teaching Research, Vol. 4, No. 3, 275-300.
- ↑ Wang, M., Koda, K. and Perfetti, C.A. (2003). Alphabetic and nonalphabetic L1 effects in English word identification: A comparison of Korean and Chinese English L2 learners. Cognition, 87, 129–149.
- ↑ Netten, J. and Germain, C. (2006). Theoretical and research foundations of Intensive French. Canadian Modern Language Review 60(3), 275-294.
- ↑ Spada, N. and Lightbown, P.M. (1989). Intensive ESL programmes in Quebec primary schools. TESL Canada Journal 7(1), 11-32.
- ↑ Serrano, R. and Muñoz, C. (2007). Same hours, different time distribution: Any difference in EFL? System 35(3), 305-321.
- ↑ Bult, B., Housen, A., Pierrard, M. and Van Daele, S. (2008). Investigating lexical proficiency development over time -- the case of Dutch-speaking learners of French in Brussels. Journal of French Language Studies, 18(3) 277-298.
- ↑ Nation, I. S. P. (Ed.) (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- ↑ Smith, M.S. and Truscott, J. (2005). Stages or Continua in Second Language, Acquisition: A MOGUL Solution, Applied Linguistics 26(2), 219-240.
- ↑ Markee, N. (2008). Toward a Learning Behavior Tracking Methodology for CA-for-SLA, Applied Linguistics 29/3: 404–427.
- ↑ Pimsleur, P. (1980). How to learn a foreign language, Heinle & Heinle Publishers.
- ↑ Kinerney, D. (2008). Understanding the persistence of adult literacy learners in English for Speakers of Other Languages programs. Dissertation, University of Maryland.
- ↑ Ferriss, T. (2007) How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour, accessed on 2008.11.24 at: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2007/11/07/how-to-learn-but-not-master-any-language-in-1-hour-plus-a-favor/
- ↑ Henry, A. and Apelgren, B.M. (2008). Young learners and multilingualism: A study of learner attitudes before and after the introduction of a second foreign language to the curriculum, System 36 (2008), 607–623.
- ↑ Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997). Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 18, 141–165.
- ↑ 24.0 24.1 De Bot, K. (2008). The Modern Language Journal 92(2), 166-178.
- ↑ Larsen-Freeman, D. and Cameron, L. (2008). Research methodology on language development from a complex theory perspective. Modern Language Journal, 92, 200–213.
- ↑ Verspoor, M., Lowie,W. and van Dijk, M. (2008). Variability in L2 development from a dynamic systems perspective. Modern Language Journal, 92, 214–231.