Is language learning a numbers game, i.e. hours spent?

We spend much time researching and debating approaches to learning languages. Grammar-based vs Comprehensible Input. Speaking Early vs Speaking Later. C+1 vs C+n. Anki SRS vs Just Keep Inputting. Extensive Reading vs Intensive Reading. And so on.

I don’t believe all approaches are equal. I doubt Duolingo returns much bang for the hours spent buck. Or passively immersing in anime.

It’s also true that getting good at conversation doesn’t make one good at reading novels and visa-versa.

However, if one is aiming at overall fluency, how much does it matter what order one studies and with what techniques, as along as one puts in the massive amounts of time?

And how do we know what really works?


I can tell you that I have been reading lots of scholarly articles on SLA research, and one thing I am pretty confident is completely proven: Reading those articles in English doesn’t help me learn Spanish. :stuck_out_tongue:


Speaking from experience, unfortunately, Duolingo is a poor way to learn for so many reasons, and the same goes for most of the downloadable language apps.

I guess one’s progress is a measure of the amount of CI listened to and the attention paid. I can listen to French, get the gist, but miss details if I don’t concentrate. I also have to study new words, grammar structures and phrases, by for example Googling, and reading the explanations. And the etymology of some of the phrases is fascinating.

I can only say that shedloads of CI plus some study has helped my French progress markedly. Is there a better approach? I don’t know. Will I reach fluency with good grammar and self expression? I don’t know.

I look to Steve Kaufmann and other polyglots to tell us what works for them.

A study by Steven Pinkers group showed a clesr age related drop off i.e. older learners learn less well. However, their sample size for older learners is relatively small, and we don’t know how these older learners went about acquiring the language. It is possible the older learners tended to use older classroom based methods that focus on grammar, which we know to be less effective than more modern approaches. That is of course a supposition.

I prefer to adopt a glass half full viewpoint, and assume that an older learner can master a second language to a high level given sufficient time and dedication, though they might need to work harder for longer.


I’m 72. I imagine I’ve lost a few steps of mental acuity since I was 17, but I still feel pretty sharp and able to learn. A few years ago I learned to program in Clojure, a modern dialect of Lisp.

Now that I’m retired and my life is settled, I enjoy more focus than I did when I was younger and pulled in so many directions.

So I don’t feel age is a terribly limiting factor. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if a great accent eludes me. I don’t expect to reach Jodie Foster’s level! (Have you seen her speak French?) I like Steve Kaufmann’s advice – try to reach an accent which doesn’t annoy native speakers.

French is a lot of work, but it feels doable. I can tell I’m getting better. I’ve found Comprehensible Input a satisfying way to learn. When I started I bought some conventional French textbooks and know I would never have gotten anywhere with them.


Incidentally, to expand on your last question, how do we know what really works, I suspect the problem is that it is hard to perform rigorous controlled experiments on language acquisition, and to do so with sufficiently large numbers of test subjects would require a large amount of money. Stephen Krashen claims to have proven his theory of language acquisition, but I have no idea what the methodology was and if it is generally accepted. Hopefully more knowledgeable forum members can add further details.

No general statement can be made about this. People are different, and not every method works for everyone.
The important thing is: What works for YOU? The only way to know this is to try different methods and let yourself be surprised…


If we’re talking about learning the fastest is all based on the amount of vocabulary you have as you go along the way and what you do with them. If you were to listen to content without knowing a certain word, you are delayed naturally until you have some form of translation in order for your brain to understand and convert to passive vocabulary. Let’s imagine you start a language but you can recognize and understand(reading context) every word right of the bat. You’re gonna naturally learn the language extremely quickly (ex: 10x) if you start listening with the transcript to get the neurons running and allow the brain to subconsciously comprehend the passage based on the amount of words you know. But if you did the same approach and you don’t know the words, you’re forced to use more time to look up the words you don’t know, which slows the time tremendously. (ex: 0.1x (exagerating)). Each of the four realms (reading, listening, speaking, writing) requires their individual amount of work and effort. In the end it’s all dependant on the amount of words you know.

  • Words increase efficiency
  • Spending time on each of the four skills brings you closer to fluency

I reached the same conclusion about experimental verification. Too many variables. Though I’m always up to learn what papers are out there without going through the stacks myself. Your link was interesting.

People have strong opinions about the best ways to learn language, but definitive answers about how methods compare and under what circumstances are unlikely to be settled any time soon.

Which is why I’m wondering whether the master variable is hours spent.

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Actually I think we could know more with rigorous, difficult, tedious and expensive experimentation, but I don’t expect the academic community is much interested in that. Partly due to the huge academic investment in grammar-based, teacher-based instruction. Though I’m willing to be surprised.

What works individually is another question, of course, best left to individuals. Nonetheless, I doubt that spending a few thousand hours on DuoLingo or anime will yield the result of the same amount of time spent on LingQ.

I come to this blog, not to get advice, but to compare notes with other self-learners.


Probably true. I studied French for five years from age 11 to 16 and learnt almost nothing, as did most other students.

Academia is a self interested juggernaut, those trained by adherents of a given method will tend to propagate that method. School and university teaching is obsessed with measuring, and formal grammar instruction is well suited to measurement in the form of an exam. That most students do not learn the language taught is ignored.

My experience supports that statement. I spent eight months using Duolingo, and I made slow progress with no real understanding of the target language.

I’m happy to take advice, but only if it is constructive, and given with the inderstanding that it might not work with me.

To get back to your original post, the one skill that has improved my French acquisition the most is being able to understand podcasts. Once I got to that stage, my ability to absorb the language rocketed. That’s perhaps not surprising as it makes it easier to absorb content more rapidly and more often e.g. while driving to a local ice rink. Today while out walking in local woods, I listened to an hour long podcast about Donnie Brasco who infiltrated the New York mafia. I understood it easily. I last listened to it sometime last year and struggled with it, getting only the gist. LingQ works for me.

In regards to language learning in school I wouldn’t ignore the importance of motivation, though. The majority of students probably don’t have any reason to learn a language except for them beeing told they have to. My English became pretty solid in school, but I came across the language in video games and music, so there was a benefit in learning the language for me.

In four years of Latin I’ve learned almost nothing, though. The thing is, that we’ve mainly spend our time translating texts and some grammar studies, which is what I’ve been mainly doing for learning Korean the last one and a half years, too. For the latter, this approach works pretty good thus far.

A friend of mine almost failed her high school exam due to math. When she was at the university afterwards, she got a solid “good” in math (a “2” in our system, where “1” is the best and “5” is worst). The difference wasn’t so much the way it was tought as much as the fact that she could use the mathematics she was not really interested in for something that she found interesting, so she had a motivation for dealing with it and some context that helped here understand.

I won’t neclect that different approaches may be of differing efficiency. But I would assume that there are a lot of factors involved that determine how efficient a specific approach really is, one of which probably the person who is trying to learn the language. And on the other hand if someone fails in doing something, like me learning Latin or you French in school, picking just one aspect and claiming for it to be the main reason is probably not the most scientific approach :slight_smile:


Some random thoughts, for what they’re worth.

  1. The more that is immediately at stake, the more the learning will happen. For example, true story, I was stuck at the back of a crowded bus in a foreign country and saw my stop coming up. I tried all the variations of “excuse me” and “pardon me” and even “I’m sorry” and “I want to get off the bus,” but nobody budged, and FYI shoving was completely useless. The bus stopped and people got on and off, but, sadly, not me. Determined, I watched and listened closely, until finally I heard another passenger saying what amounted to that language’s “Open Sesame” - and saw the proverbial “red sea waters” part. Aha! So I uttered the same magic words, and… success! I had to walk back a few bus stops to get to my intended destination, but I had no regrets - I had learned something very useful and I never forgot it, even though I had only heard it once. Really time efficient. Same with “Watch out! A car is coming!” - followed by me being yanked backwards onto the sidewalk. It only took once.
  1. Reading aloud consistently and with available translation is probably one of the best ways – for me, anyway. I’ve been reading Spanish out loud with a group of friends every day for 1.5 hours per day, reading material that we have in both English and Spanish. We are just reading along steadily in Spanish, and I refer to the English less and less as we go along. Because it’s with friends, there’s accountability that has kept me from slacking off or giving up - especially back at the beginning when it felt like the material was flying by and I was not comprehending much at all. At this point it’s been probably four years of daily consistent reading. I’m not completely fluent, I make mistakes, etc, but I still remember the day that I suddenly realized, Wow! I can communicate in Spanish! That’s already amazing enough for me, since I started from your basic USA version of zero. (Hello, thank you, numbers up to five, taco, burrito, tortilla, quesadilla.) So I would say this method definitely works; failing friends being available to read with you, LingQ is the next best thing. And in fact, with material that I only have a copy of in Spanish, I can easily load it up into LingQ and read from there. Big plus if there are stats that keep getting higher, regardless of accuracy - wahoo, big numbers, right? :slight_smile:
  1. Listening and repeating, and having the translation always available when needed. Along with having a reading companion - or a few - bilingual language tapes were just the ticket, for learning Mandarin quickly. I wanted the same when learning Korean, so I bought and struggled my way through Pimsleur for a while, but after I finished up to a certain level I didn’t buy the next level, because I really need to be able to listen to ONE sentence again and again and again, and a sense of control, and Pimsleur is not that. Another thing I tried was Google Translate, and that works exceedingly well for languages that have text-to-speech available, but the downside is needing to keep finding and re-loading the material every session, and the length limit is a bit frustrating. LingQ makes that whole process – listening to a single sentence over and over – a whole lot easier, and saves the lessons for repeated use, and you can load lessons with some continuity, so I’m really happy about that. :slight_smile:
  1. Something that holds the interest. Some of the stories on LingQ are like that -“Who is She?” comes to mind.
  2. Watching tv/videos in target language- If simple passive watching in target language could lead to proficiency, I can name at least one language that I would be insanely fluent in by now. (News flash: I’m not.)



I’m intrigued that this worked so well for you, not that I doubt you.

My attempts to listen to podcasts have been dismal. There’s often too much background noise, distortion in the voices, then the vagaries of slang, different accents, incomplete thoughts, and interruptions.

Of course, listening comprehension is a big weak point for me. I still have trouble hearing TTS voices. (Though I am getting better and have had a good breakthrough recently.)

What I now know is that language learning covers many domains and skills. Being good at one is no guarantee that one will good at another.

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I’ve found motivation to be huge for everything I’ve learned.

I took Latin for four years in Catholic school. About all I remember is “hic haec hoc” and “Gaul is divided into three parts.”

I now wish I had paid more attention, but it was not a voluntary choice.


End of last year, I had been learning my new language for three years, mostly by the “conventional” method. I was not so content with the result, because I was not at all able to take part in a simple conversation.

In the beginning of this year, I found LingQ. Now, each day, I do a 45 minutes work listening to my podcast with mini stories and some music mixed in. On the other hand, I stopped learning vocabulary cards. End of June, I will check how much I improved. This will be my test whether Stephen Krashen is right.


By all means keep us posted.

IMO we are all doing recon for the next gen of language learners.

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You might be interested in this report from the UK government on teaching in UK schools:

They describe UK teaching of second languages as poor and the teaching of second languages is better in France and Germany. Perhaps these countries use more input based methods. 30 years ago I took lessons with the Institut Français and Alliance Française in England which was similar. Perhaps it has changed since.

Yes the sound quality can be poor. There is also something about French, the nasality I think, that makes it hard to hear, and it just required time for me to get used to it. For several months I used headphones that were a bit bright i.e. higher frequencies boosted, which helped. I also made sure to choose suitable podcasts. There are plenty for learners where the presenter speaks clearly. I struggled a lot, often missing whole phrases, and not knowing words, but when you’re driving, or walking outdoors, you can’t look things up. Then I moved on to semi formal podcasts, so interviews with a specialist about the domestication of the horse, the evolution of Homo sapiens, the uniformity of cheese mould strains and so on. For a long while I only got the gist. But I started to study in LingQ, reading a transcript while listening, and that helped massively. Unfortunately I find a lot of the LingQ content uninspiring. Some has poor sound quality, in some the presenter is inarticulate, often the content does not interest me and so on. So I now always import from YouTube. TED talks are good, formal lectures from research institutes are good too. A lot of the time I don’t worry about details, though I sometimes rewind to catch a missed word or phrase. I think the problem with Duolingo et al is that you focus on details and grammar, rather than absorbing content and allowing the brain to do its own thing, Anyway, this is just the method I settled on, I’m not claiming it’s the best method, or that it will work for everyone. But it certainly has worked wonders on my comprehension.

As an aside, I loathe carefully articulated Parisian style French and avoid such content. It makes me tense for some reason, much like carefully articulated RP English. I suppose the moral is to choose content you like, or that you can tolerate.

I’m pleased to hear you had a breakthrough recently, I have also had breakthroughs every few months, where something just seems easier. Throw enough mud at a wall, and some will stick. For what it’s worth, I have a dreadful memory, so I will never speak with the fluidity of Luca Lampariello for example, even in my native language.

I don’t interpret the paper as stating the UK teaching as poor, but improveable. I haven’t read the whole paper in detail, but some things that stand out for me:

  • It’s stated that the majority of L2 teachers had a good pronounciation. During my time at school most L2 teachers didn’t even bother to hold the lessons in the language they were teaching.
  • It’s stated, that only 1% of British students deal well with complex speach compared to an EU average of 30%. It is not specified what complex speach is, however (it isn’t in the linked source, either), and again refering to my own school time I’d claim that anything I would consider complex wasn’t part of our curriculum and that the majority of pupils would not be able to understand such, too, as they can’t even do so in their native language German.

Of course this is highly subjective, but based on my daily work with pupils I am not convinced that language teaching is a strength of the German educational system. I cannot speak for France, of course. It might be that the UK is worse then Germany or other countries when it comes to teaching foreign languages, but the paper didn’t really go into detail on how the way language is tought in the UK differs from other countries but instead is quoting statistics. And there is always more then one way to interpret those :slight_smile:

I’m not against continuosly improving the way we teach stuff, may it be language or anything else, and be sure that Germany itself has alot of unused potential when it comes to proper education, but there is one thing that comes to mind as you are explicitely comparing the UK with other countries. The majority of music we listen to in the radio or elsewhere is in English, independent from whether it is the artists first language or not. I myself listened to bands from Poland, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Greece, and so one when I was a teenager, the majority of which use the English language. Video games that are puplished in one language only due to the costs get published in English, even if the developer and the publisher are from a non-english speaking country. Both those mediums were a much more important source for learning the English language then anything taught in school. Hell, this forum is mainly in English as is a big chunk of the internet.

So as a native English speaker there is much less of a need or a benefit from learning other languages as for a non-native speaker, as English has become the world language. And you really would have to search to actually get confronted with anything else then English. So this is a comparision between apples and pies to begin with. It would be interesting to see how the UK compares to other countries if you ignore English as a second language and compare the skills pupils acquired in French, for example. The European language survey referenced in section 2.3 is interesting in this regards.

  • 16 jurisdictions tested out of which 13 had English as first foreign language!
  • The 3 remaining ones, including the UK, tested French as first foreign language. The two other ones were the Flemish and the German community of Belgium. French is one of the languages spoken in that country, so again, not comparable.
  • One of the best countries is Sweden. As far as I am aware of (Swedish people might correct me if I am mistaken), it is not unusual to have movies and series in English with subtitles in TV and cinema. Something that you usually don’t find in Germany, where almost everything is synchronized. Wikipedia states that the UK doesn’t synchronize adult movies either, but maybe it is not necessary if the majority is from Hollywood anyway.

Sorry for the wall of text. I swear it solely serves the purpose of improving your reading comprehension. :smiley:

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When I was 15, 45 years ago. I attended an English lesson for German students in a German school, in Wiesbaden I think. I was impressed by the standard. I’ve travelled in Germany, and Holland and the English skills of ordinary people are impressive. English is seen as essential for a career in business, technology and science. The French were awful at English back then, they seem to have improved, but a lot of students still do poorly at school in all fields, which is also the case in the UK.

When I was at school, back in the Middle Ages, I remember our teacher used an old reel to reel tape recorder, and I couldn’t understand a word. Lessons were deathly dull. I simply got lost in a class of 30, as did many others.

We English don’t see languages as important, and we always felt uncomfortable speaking a foreign language. Germans and Dutch seem to lack that inhibition. The number of English students taking a language at school after 14 is declining year on year. It is currently compulsory in non academy state schools from 7 to 14 to study an ancient or modern second language. However most state schools are academies!

Yes English media, such as American films, is widespread. However these days one can easily find marvelous films and podcasts in French, and I assume other languages such as German.

This might be of interest:

In my opinion the biggest issue in UK schools is class size. We had 30 or so students per class when I was at school. It hasn’t changed. Private schools have much smaller classes, and in my experience privately educated students express themselves far better, have better social skills and more confidence. Large classes don’t help language learning.

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