Your first language, your age and even local politics could all affect how long it takes you to learn a language, explains Melanie Butler.
Many frustrated language learners will have asked themselves: how long does it really take to learn a language?
Of course, the answer isn’t simple, and starts with another question: are we talking about natural acquisition or classroom learning? In the case of natural acquisition, the average baby receives at least 5,000 hours of input before it can make a simple sentence in its L1.any frustrated language learners will have asked themselves: how long does it really take to learn a language?
Meanwhile, migrant children entering school at around five years old will take between four and eight years to acquire the language, according to research in the US and the UK. These countries have traditionally taken radically different approaches to the education of migrant children.
In the UK, the 1985 Swann report recommended that migrant children should be educated in mainstream classes and given language support – and this remains the norm, at least in primary schools. A longitudinal study of British-born children showed that migrants entering school in the first year had the same average score in English at the age of eleven as their native-speaker peers.
Meanwhile, a 1974 court case in California found that migrant children should be entitled to ‘affirmative action’ to help them improve their English. In most states, this has meant that most primary-age English Language Learners (ELLs), 80 per cent of whom are born in the US, are educated in separate programmes and enter the mainstream when their academic English is as high as that of their native-speaker peers. This usually takes six years.
In English-speaking countries, primary children learning English as an additional language (EAL) – starting school at an early age – will also acquire the language in around six years of full-time education in English.
So how long does it take for children studying English as a foreign language in a non-English-speaking country?
According to US language learning guru Steven Krashen, there shouldn’t be any difference: all language is acquired, not learned. But according to Cambridge English Language Assessment, classroom language learning is much faster than natural acquisition.
The Cambridge website says it takes an average of 200 hours of guided learning to compete one level on the Common European Framework. And it says it takes 1,000–1,200 hours to reach C2, roughly equivalent to the level of a well-educated native speaker. Really? Are they absolutely sure? Let’s look at the evidence.
The best data is the language test results of fifteen-year-olds in thirteen European countries, organised by none other than Cambridge English Language Assessment.
These are the very people who maintain that on average it takes 500 to 600 hours of guided learning to reach B2. Only one country, Sweden, averaged B2 at this age. Only two, Slovenia and Estonia, hit B1 or above on average in around 500 hours.
To be fair, the Netherlands did hit a B1 average in two languages. Since they don’t normally start formal language learning until they are ten years old, they might even have hit both of them within the magic 350–400 hours considered normal by Cambridge. Is this because of some particular problem with English? It doesn’t look like it.
Speakers of Germanic languages appear to have trouble with Romance languages. Two communities in Belgium, the Flemish and the German speakers, study French as their first language, and neither get anywhere near a B1 average in it.
In the case of the Flemish, this may be because of their desire to form a separate state.
German-speaking Belgians, though, are reportedly determined for Belgium to remain united. Surrounded as they are by French-speaking Belgians, they have an enormous amount of exposure to the language.
But the problem some Belgians have with French is certainly not because they are bad at language learning more generally.
When you look at the level they achieve in their second foreign language, English, you can see that, like their Flemish-speaking countryfolk, they smash the B1 barrier.
If we look carefully at the table we can see that the biggest predictor of ability to learn English is not the number of hours spent in the classroom but the language family to which someone’s first language belongs.
Speakers of Germanic languages all reach B1 or higher in English, another Germanic language, by the age of fifteen. And as for those who speak a Romance language – none of them do.
Indeed, apart from Poland, every single country in the bottom third of the table for English are Romance speakers. Most Slavs, the Greeks and even the Estonians and Maltese, who have languages that are not even Indo-European, do better.
And it works the other way round too. The Swedes are rubbish at Spanish, while the Belgian French are below par in English. And as for the Spanish, by the age of fifteen they have spent nine years desperately trying to learn English, with over 40 per cent of them also doing private lessons. And they still don’t hit B1. Yet, according to the EU test results, significantly more reach that level in French after only two years.
Of course, there are other reasons we could find for the difference in outcomes – cultural, political and the simple question of who dubs their television and who subtitles it.
But the fact remains that Romance-language speakers struggle more with Germanic languages than other European speakers – even, perhaps, when they live in a Germanic-speaking country. A 2017 study in the US, reported in Education Week, showed that Spanish-speaking English learners take longer, even than Chinese and Koreans, to acquire the level of academic English to do well at school.
So, how long does it take to learn English? It depends on your first language.