So, how long does it take to learn English, then?

Bad news, I’m afraid. I’m not going to answer the question, but rather I’m going to explain why I can’t answer it, why it probably can’t be answered, and what we could do about this. I’m also likely to get a load of people trying desperately to work this out for their own studies, so my sincere apologies, but I hope that you enjoy this nonetheless.

To set this in context, however, earlier this year those highly experienced educational experts (Oh, how I long for a sarcasm punctuation mark) at the Skills Funding Agency set out some apparently random rules that the courses they would fund are only those leading to an award (approx 50 hours) or a certificate (approx 100 hours). My numbers are rough, and as things stand it’s looking increasingly like for the next year at least things are unlikely to change too terribly, (probably because nobody had time to actually write the qualifications) but it gives us a clear idea as to where the government is going with this one. Either way, the implied fifty hours to move forward in speaking and listening seems arbitrary at the least: certainly, it’s not based in any kind of research or evidence. And just speaking and listening? As ever with UK ESOL policy the assumption is that all skills are equal, and that grammar and lexis are merely adjuncts to the skills. The systems of grammar and lexis needed to progress from level X to level Y are the same whether or not you demonstrate proficiency in those systems through speaking or writing, so to add 50 odd hours extra for reading and writing seems random to say the least.

There was a glamourously headlined article in the Guardian last year, How I Learned a Language in 22 Hours. It was interesting to read and I’ve no doubt that language teachers the world over had a good long read to see what the secret was. The secret, of course being that it’s not quite 22 hours. It doesn’t take much time before the essential lie of the headline writer becomes clear: the writer is referring not at all to learning a language but to learning only the most common 1000 words. This is rather different. It’s also only time spent using a particular online system, and doesn’t take into account wider factors in the writer’s non-online time, which may or may not have influenced things.

What is interesting here, from a policy influencing point of view, is that this article, with its frankly inaccurate headline, gives the impression of speedy progression from no language to language. Far be it for me to assume that the government would ever base policy decisions on such things as articles written by journalists or clearly biased research by private companies, of course, and I have no doubt that they use well planned, well researched evidence. (Again, that sarcasm mark, please.)

The thing is, by its very nature, the length of time it takes to learn a language is always going to be tricky to measure. It will vary hugely from person to person, even where you take into account the various individual differences. A quick google search threw up this link which although it doesn’t suggest a time for English (being focussed on the time it takes for English speakers to learn another language) it does suggest between 550 and 2200 taught hours, depending on the language being learned. If you flip those figures (yes, I know), you could get an idea of how long it would take for a speaker of those languages to learn English.

So far, this is pretty dodgy ground, I have to be honest, but this is a blog post based on a Google search, not a serious literature review.

There is page 17 of this which cites the same data as above, but which talks in terms of years of study as well as specific hours. There’s a great post hereon the subject (which is where I found the last link) which also brings into the equation the 10,000 hour theory.

What’s especially interesting here is the recognition that the number of hours spent per week has an impact, as opposed to just Guided Learning Hours, which is important, and the impact of immersion, both of which are relevant for ESOL learners.

So then I find this, from an intensive training French language school, suggesting that they can get people up to the first level of the CEFR (page 24 is the easiest summary) in 60 hours. This looks familiar. But lets hang on before we get too excited. Here we are talking both immersion (it’s in France) and high intensivity: that’s 60 hours without distractions like, say, children, relationships, work, and the rest of your life, and aimed probably at wealthy, educated middle class English speakers, whose language shares great swathes of similarity. I’m not saying it’s wrong to suggest 60 hours here, just that a little context is important. And anyway, as the language level increases the amount of time suggested goes up, until you are looking at 100-200 hours for the mid to higher levels, equivalent to Entry 2 to Level 2, where the majority of ESOL learners in the UK sit.

Then there is a section here where it’s suggested that children in an immersive learning environment but using a different home language, need about 2-3 years to become proficient enough to function.

I could go on, I really could, but I think we can safely say that nobody can say for sure, apart from the claims of people trying to flog you audio-lingual “listen and repeat” self study courses The general feeling seems to be around 150-200 hours per level, although this is mostly hunches and guess work, but still. I’ve not even gone into tryibg to find out what the definitions of “proficiency” are, which adds another layer of confusion to proceedings.

Of course what we really need is a proper study of ESOL learners in the UK, based on objective assessments of their performance and improvement over time.

Rather handily, although I never thought I would say this, thanks to the pressures of public accountability, we are sitting on a mountain of data which could give us more than a few clues as to how long it takes a UK ESOL learner to progress from level to level, and which takes into account spiky profiles. Major chunks of a senior manager’s life, it would seem, is about finding and channelling data, and among the most important sets of data is student achievement data, that is what qualifications learners have achieved, and, crucially, when and how long it took for them to do that.

Every college in the country has this data going back years. Really actual proper years, in some cases perhaps a decade. Massive heaps of data on students who achieve, return to study more and achieve again, progressing slowly but surely up the levels. Even without this, when I get into work today I could easily go and grab about 12 case studies of learners who have progressed from Entry 2 to level 1, as could many teachers around the country.

And these are exactly the learners we want to know about.

What’s annoying, however, is that the same accountants and non-teachers who decided upon the 50 hours thing have access to all of this data. All of it, for every ESOL learner in the UK. And yet they seemed to pick 50 hours out of the air.

Maybe they didn’t, maybe 50 hours is the average. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe my own observations and reflections of learners is wrong. Maybe the reflections, experiences and observations of experienced ESOL professionals (remember them?) around the country are wrong and the accountants are right. Maybe.

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