How fast can one learn a language?

I’ve written on this topic a few times previously, on my former blog, notably here and here. Today I want to explore a different side of this question.


I’ve previously suggested that to get to a level of ‘fluency’ in Ancient Greek or Latin, we might estimate 1100 class hours (based on comparison with contemporary Indo-European languages). That might break down to something like

100-150 hours (A1)

160-220 hours (A2)

400 hours (B1)

600-650 hours (B2)

800-900 hours (C1)

1100 hours (C2)


Maybe. We just don’t know. While there are certainly individuals with exceptional Latin and Greek ability, we don’t have quanitifiable data on this.

Okay, so I’ve also said we probably need to get students to B2, at least, in a serious language program.


At 1 hour a week, 40 weeks a year, this is 15 years. Too Long.

At 3 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, this is still 5 years. Too Long.

At 6 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, we get down to 2.5 years. This would fit in a degree program.

If we wanted fluent speakers, i.e. that was the focus of the program, we need to raise the hours to, say, 1000. Then we really need to make it a full-time course.

At 12 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, this is still 2 years. On a standard 12 contact hours per week per semester, that is a students’ full load. Probably our notion of ‘contact hours’ needs to be radically altered from the ‘lecture + tutorial/seminar’ model of Arts/Humanities Faculties.

At 24 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, a student would complete this many hours in a year. Of course, this is about 4.8 hours in the language, with a teacher, per day. That is going to be both an intensive and extensive course. We will probably not be able to teach them much else. If, heavens forbid, we design a two or three language program, then a year will not suffice.



All of this is a long, number-crunching prelude to say that it takes too long. As teachers, and even as learners, we must find ways to accelerate the process. To put it into Krashenesque terms, we want to work out how can students get maximum exposure to comprehensible input that is in the ‘sweet spot’, that is, input that is interesting, and at the limit of their comprehension so that they are always getting things that they can understand, while at the same time acquiring things they previously did not have, while providing enough repetitions, but not excessive repetition of previously acquired structures.

There are definitely no silver bullets for this. Indeed, it will vary for learner, for learning cohort, for life circumstance, and for teacher. However, of this I am certain – part of what it is to be learning as a teacher or self-reflectively as a language learning is figuring out ways to accelerate the language acquisition process. To become more efficient at using the time, and the inputs, available to us.


This is one of the things I like about Where are your Keys? Techniques, or “rules of the game”, are designed to be accelerators of learning. That’s why they exist. Every technique is built around that one facet: how to make language acquisition more efficient: more learning, less time. And, that’s why there’s no arbitrary ‘cap’ on Techniques. Sure, there are some, indeed quite a few standard TQs, but there’s no definitive no-more-than-these list. TQs get invented when something doesn’t work, and someone comes up with a way to make it work. TQs are formalising ‘what works’ and applying it. That’s meta-learning.



2 responses

  1. I learned six languages by the time I was four years of age. Then I began to “sight read” at the age of eight.

    • Thank you for your comment. However, I am not entirely sure what you mean by “learned six languages” at 4 years of age. Besides which, I am not discussing L1 acquisition, but L2.

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