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.



I’m not fluent!

It’s a common question, “Are you fluent?” or “How many languages are you fluent in?”

But it’s not a very helpful question, because ‘fluency’ is a very difficult to define concept. Many people have the idea that you ‘learn a language’ and once you have learnt it you are a native-like speaker, with perfect pronunciation and complete mastery. This almost never happens for an L2 speaker.


Benny Lewis, of “Fluent in 3 months” fame, in his book of the same name, treats it as basically B2 on the CEFR and above. And he quotes “can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party”. It doesn’t help that ‘fluency’ is part of this criterion! Personally, I think B2 might peg what most people mean by ‘fluency’ a little too low, I think C1 might match most people’s perceptions a little better.


I’m not fluent in Latin or Greek. I don’t even pretend to be. I have far too little experience in speaking and listening, and conversation, to make any claims like this. I can read very competently, I can write moderately well, and I can buy my theoretical groceries (i.e. I have had and can have routine conversations about things I am familiar with). I wasn’t taught Latin or Greek communicatively, so it’s no wonder I’m not very communicative in them. Instead, I studied both in very traditional philological styles, grammar + translation + analysis. So I’m very good at grammar, translation, analysis.


However, I think this was a mistake; I think analysis is better achieved by learning communicatively. So in this regard I think of myself as a journeyman, someone who has at least done their apprenticeship and is on the way. One day, perhaps, I will be a master. And I take it that those of us interested in this kind of learning are on a journey together. We’re none of us perfect, but to quote a WAYK aphorism/technique, “We’ll all get there together.” Speaking a language isn’t an individualistic enterprise, it’s about a community of speakers. I’ll help you get further on that journey, and you’ll help me, even if we’re not in the same place to start with, and don’t end in the same place, we’ll both get a little further along the journey, which means the community will grow a little bit too.


Fluency is not a point. There’s no end goal where one arrives and says, “okay, I have learnt language X”. Acquisition of a language is not a binary Yes/No state of being. A much better approach is to ask:


* Did communication occur?

* Was the communicative event successful? (or was it failed communication? or miscommunication?)

* How successful?

* How ‘fluid’ was the communicative act? (Yes, we could use the word ‘fluent’, but it will only distract us; we are asking whether it flowed or whether it was halting, segmented, disrupted)

* How ‘comfortable’ was the communicative act on both sides? (Was it uncomfortable? Did it feel strained?)

* How much accomodating behaviour was necessary by one party or the other? (i.e. adjustment of language in order to facilitate communication, say, when more precise or fitting terms or structures would be more appropriate but would be less successful)


When we start to evaluate communicative actsevents, and discourses, we realise that the same speaker may perform and communicate outstandingly well at one time, but dreadfully at another. Are they a ‘fluent’ speaker? Fluency tries to raise the bar and say, “you need to be competent in all situations and communicative events”. I’m saying, junk that, let’s just work out how to learn from every communicative event that falls short, and work on how to improve not only an individual’s skills, but a language communities’ whole system of communication.