Posted on by Peter Rettig

10,000 hours for Foreign Language Mastery?

Wal ClockksSeveral recent posts and articles made me wonder whether Malcolm Gladwell's findings in his book Outliers also apply to achieving foreign language mastery.

Two examples in his book may be relevant: Gladwell reported that the violinists, (links between musical and language aptitude?) who were studied by a team of psychologists in the 90s seemed to diverge in their skills mainly by the amount of time they practice.

There is also also his tale of Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and spoken in awe among Silicon Valley insiders in much the same way as Bill  Gates, who also had thousands of programming hours (in some ways another language?) before founding Microsoft. (This “rule” for achieving mastery was first proposed by a Swedish psychologist and then popularized by Gladwell's book.)

But is language mastery really achieved by logging in around 10,000 hours of practice? And what constitutes “practice” when learning a language? “Practice makes perfect” is a slogan many of us hear a lot and have used as well to encourage others to practice.

On the other hand, marketing slogans such as “Learn a language in 10 days,” or “Fluency in 30 days,” or “Fluent in 3 months” also seem to pop up everywhere.

Language Practice and the Pareto Rule

If we were to apply Malcolm's 10,000 hrs to achieving mastery in a foreign language, it would translate into one of the following practice schedules:

  • 13.7 hours a day for 2 years or
  • 9.1 hours a day for 3 years or
  • 6.8 hours a day for 4 years or
  • 5.5 hours a day for 5 years

You get the idea.

Recently I saw a YouTube Video by Tim Spricht, in which he suggested that one could apply the Pareto principle to language learning, meaning you could get 80% of the reward or accomplishment with 20% of the effort.

So, if full mastery were not your ultimate goal and you could be happy with achieving +/-80% mastery - still a very high proficiency level - then you could get there with maybe spending “only” 2000 hrs, or less than 3 hours a day for 2 years.

Now, I am not quite sure that the Pareto principle can really be applied that way. Pareto originally observed that 80% of Italy's land was owned by 20% of the population; some businesses find that 80% of their sales come from 20 % of their customers; or that 20% of the workers produce 80% of the results; or that 20% of the features cause 80% of the usage etc.

However, neither do those percentages always have to total exactly 100%, nor are most things in life - effort, reward, output, success - distributed evenly.

Doubts about the “10,000 hours rule”?

A study published in Psychological Science in 2014 also raises some doubts about this "rule." A meta-analysis covering all major domains in which deliberate practice has been investigated surfaced some interesting results. It found that such deliberate practice made the following differences:

  • in games - a 26% difference
  • in music - a 21% difference
  • in sports – a 18% difference
  • in education – only a 4% difference

Others have argued that practice is only effective in areas that have stable structures, where the rules don't change or vary little.

This indeed may apply to language learning quite well. And while practice in education only is shown to make a 4% difference, we suspect that the percentage is quite a bit higher for educational games and language learning.

Foreign Language Mastery vs. Targeted Practice

There are several terms we often hear and use when we assert that we SPEAK a language. Generally the four major skills: listening/comprehension, reading, speaking, and writing can be judged by rating someone's proficiency in a language.

For many casual learners, “proficiency” may be less important than “fluency.” As we also discussed in a previous post, Fluency vs. Proficiency in Foreign Language Learning, you may be able to speak a language fluently, but not be proficient in reading or writing. (Think of pre-school children who speak a language quite fluently, but can neither read nor write!)

Therefore, after reaching some basic knowledge of the language, learners may want to decide which skills they want to practice in particular.

If reading is your goal, there are many tools, programs and apps to do this.

If listening/understanding is what you want to become good at, listening to audios and watching videos and movies will help.

If writing is what you want to practice, you can take advantage of the many online communities.

If fluency is your goal, you have to find a conversation partner and practice speaking.

And clearly, all four practices support each other in different ways and most online courses and/or classroom instructions typically address all four skills as well.

However, while you can learn listening/understanding, reading, and writing on your own, with audios, books and pen, we believe that SPEAKING requires a conversation partner.

Few, if any online language programs (Duolingo and GamesforLanguage included) will give you sufficient speaking practice to really become fluent.

Skype, FaceTime, and web-based tutors and communities allow you to find such conversation partners on the web, if a "live" conversation partner is hard to come by.

You should also remember that once you start using your foreign language in conversations with your friends and conversation partners, listening to the radio, reading, and writing,

It will feel less and less like “practice, but the hours of being exposed to and using the foreign language still do count!

How long does it take?

This is probably one of the most frequently-asked question by English-speaking language learners, and a general answer is impossible. For example, Language Testing International (LTI) distinguishes four (4) language groups.

Many European languages, such as Spanish, Italian, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, etc. are in Group I;

German, Farsi, Greek, etc. are in Group II;

Czech, Hebrew, Russian, etc. are in Group III;

and Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, etc. are in Group IV;

this latter group includes the languages that take the longest for English speakers to learn. The table shows three aptitude levels and three training levels for all four Groups.

For example, for languages in Group I, LTI estimates that it takes a person with “Average Aptitude 240 hours of training "under the supervision of an instructor and with 1-4 students per class" to reach “Intermediate Mid” proficiency and 720 hours to get to “Advanced High.” 

Click on How long Does it Take to Become Proficient to see the specifics of LTI's projections for other aptitudes and language groups.

So for all the self-teaching language learners who are using books, CDs, or online courses or those who take private instructions or classes, the conclusion is quite clear:

Learning to become fluent and/or proficient in a foreign language is a long-term project and cannot be accomplished in 10 days or 30 days.

Our own experience has been that learning a foreign language as an adult is not a straight path, but leads you through various plateaus of listening/understanding, reading, speaking, and writing abilities – depending on various circumstances of practice and exposure to the language.

If you can add an extended stay in the country where the language is spoken (with efforts to limit the use of your native language) your progress will certainly accelerate.