At the height of his fame, Bob Dylan was asked by a journalist how many other protest singers there were like him. “About 136,” he replied. The journalist was not satisfied: “You say about 136. Or do you mean exactly 136?” Dylan came back: “It’s either 136 or 142.”
We’re not quite in the same league, but we’re often asked how long it takes to learn French. I’ll tell you when I’ve finished, I think to myself. Some websites claim you can learn to speak a language in a week. The CIA reckons on 4400 hours.
What academic research does suggest is that if you take a cross section of language learners and look for the factors most likely to predict success, three stand out from the rest: motivation, time spent and the use of some kind of memorisation methodology. So while there’s no one method that suits everyone, you can use this knowledge to craft the plan that best suits you.
Motivation comes in two parts. There’s the end goal (for example: I want to live abroad / Understand my husband / Get a Job). And then there’s the intrinsic motivation related to the activity of learning itself (I enjoy reading / Talking / Discovering new cultures / Playing with words). Both are valuable, but the studies suggest that those entirely driven by the end goal are more likely to fail. It’s those who find an intrinsic enjoyment in what they’re doing that are the most likely to last the distance.
Spending the time can be the hardest part. A good pace is about 500 hours a year. (Exactly 500? It’s either 500 or 700). That’s around two hours a day five days a week. Not many of us have that much time to give. But if that’s the problem, it’s at least better to know it than fretting over how much more brilliant we were as children. There’s no strong evidence that adults are worse learners than children, though when it come to second languages, older people can have more baggage they need to get rid of.
Finally, most people need to establish some kind of learning and memorisation methodology. Experiments in which adult learners tried to learn a second language purely by imitation – rather like we learn a first language as a child – broadly speaking failed. This is because our first language has taken the default space in the brain. Acquiring knowledge and using conscious mental effort are the most efficient ways to overcome our erroneous instincts.
How do you make the knowledge stick? Some people like flash cards, some like to keep a notebook or a diary. Parents of very young learners report success with duolingo – which has a gamified approach that children take to easily. It’s a question of finding the technique that’s right for you.
Our own course at frenchclasses.com offers a method that’s more suited to adult and adolescent learners. By taking you through the underlying structure of the language, it provides you with a framework on which to pin your knowledge. Complement the learning with motivating activities of your own choice – reading, writing, talking – to keep that knowledge in the active memory and you will be on the way.
Studying how second languages are learned is also an interesting way to complement language learning itself. How Languages are Learned by Patsy Lightbrown and Nina Spada gives a good overview.