Learning a New Language…

… How long does it take?

Well, i’m almost certain that if you ask ten different people, you will likely get various answers, including the well-known and well-used “It depends…”

Depends on what? Well, lots of things – age of learner, hours and frequency of lessons, whether the language is used daily, whether the learner is using a method suited to him etc…

Why am i talking about this? Well, because i read this article “How Long Does it Take to Learn a New Language?” by Dr. S.E. Eaton. It was an interesting read, a bit technical for a lay-person though, but still a good read.

Plus, we are coming up to finishing our 10th year here in Switzerland! Yes, 10 years in September! Amazing, huh? Time has just flown by. i can still remember myself on that very first train ride from Zürich airport to Solothurn, a place that has been home for the last 3560 days (minus vacations). i remember being all excited and taking everything in with the eyes of a newborn babe. Then getting hit hard with the language barrier.

i have always found language learning to be quite difficult, even when i was in school and we had to learn a second language. (For my non-singaporean readers) In Singapore, the language of instruction in schools is English. Everyone is also required to learn a second language, usually based on your race or these days the language chosen by your inter-racial parents. So being Chinese, i learnt Chinese, or Mandarin as it is properly known. i was never very good at it even though i have had 13 years of study in it; always scraping by with just the minimum passing grade.

However, i take comfort in what Dr. Eaton says in her article:

“Learning a second language for 95 hours per year for six years will not lead to functional bilingualism and fluency in the second language. Expectations must be realistic.” (Archibald et al., 2007, p. 3)

OK, so i had twice that but still it was not a language i spoke outside of my Chinese class so i never progressed to “expert” level. Of course, i can converse in it. But i, personally, judge expertise in a language to mean that one can discuss politics , environmental issues and religion with ease. i can talk about the weather, shopping, children/school issues and general small talk, but that’s about all.

i think my German is at about the same level as my Chinese, maybe even better, as i can read in German better than i can in Chinese. (If you ever tried to learn Chinese, you will understand that without constant practice and exposure, reading Chinese is very very difficult. There is no guessing through phonetically trying to sound out the word. You just have to know the word.)

Look at all the German Language learning materials i have amassed over the years…

So how many hours of lessons did it take me to arrive at being conversational in German?

Let’s see, i have had roughly 6 years or a little more of weekly German instruction. 2 hours a week. Minus holidays. That’s about 76 hours a year for 6 years… equals 456 hours, give or take some.

In Dr. Eaton’s article, she puts up a very simplified way of calculating the time needed to become an expert in a language . Apparently, research experts have decided on the “10,000 hours to be an expert” rule for language learning. So i take comfort in that i will need another 9544 hours of classes till expert level.

But of course, this does not take into account other factors, such as learning method, ability, immersion etc…

My German did not make any significant leap until Tobias went to Kindergarten and i got to interact with other parents and the teacher on an almost daily basis in German. Then it clicked, the hours of lessons in crazy German grammar made some sense and my vocabulary was built up. And i found speaking the language no longer embarrassed me. i finally got the hang of it after i really put myself out there and immersed myself in hearing and using the language.

So what’s the point of this whole post?

Well, i wanted to encourage those who are struggling to learn a new language… hang in there, keep practicing, keep making mistakes and you will get there. Be brave, speak that language you are trying to learn, it’s the only way to get there. It took me many years and many hours of lessons to get to conversational (i’m really slow at languages.) so it will happen for you too – just keep using the language.

Have a lovely weekend.


4 Replies to “Learning a New Language…”

  1. You are so right that it’s the conversations, where you put your “class learning” to use, that really makes it all stick. I had a conversation with another mom this morning – there was one thing that I realised in hindsight that I misunderstood but I got about 90-95% of the discussion and that feels like such an achievement! When I think about my early days and how I struggled to get to the point where the quirks of German came naturally to me, it feels good!

    Are you still taking classes? Mine just ended and I’m debating finding a new one or not (often I can’t find ones that meet at a time that works around my mom-schedule).


    1. Hi E, yes it is practice, practice & more practice ;)… yep, still taking classes… i will till i get my B1 cert… my current teacher is so great, she is helping us (there are a few of us in my class who wanna do the test) by walking us through the test and practising with us…
      u wanna considering coming for my class? – tuesday evenings – PM me.
      Speaking of practice, how’s the violin coming along for B? T is loving it 😀
      See ya soon – hopefully?


  2. I’ll send you an email about getting together. Evenings aren’t do-able for me, because the Husband can’t reliably be home on a given evening. Let me give it some thought though. I think I’m a bit behind you guys too….

    B is loving the violin! Although she missed her second lesson because she was home sick with a cold … sniffles are starting early this year!


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