The “10,000 hour rule” is not a rule

Forgive the post… I’m in a Qantas flight lounge, with 3 hours to kill, and the bar is open…

"We hear a lot about “10,000 hours” being what it takes to become an expert. But the majority of people totally misunderstand the idea…

So what does everybody get wrong? 2 things.

First, the “10,000 hour rule” is not a rule and it’s not an exact number. The amount of time varies from field to field. It’s an average. But it’s always a lot and more is better…

In most domains it’s remarkable how much time even the most “talented” individuals need in order to reach the highest levels of performance. The 10,000 hour number just gives you a sense that we’re talking years of 10 to 20 hours a week which those, who some people would argue are the most innately talented individuals, still need to get to the highest level…

What’s the second mistake? Becoming an expert is not merely doing something over and over for 10,000 hours. There’s a right way — and an awful lot of wrong ways — to spend that time."

The above are comments from an interview with Anders Ericsson regarding his upcoming new book - “Peak” The 4 Rituals That Will Make You An Expert At Anything - Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Ericsson’s research was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in the book “Outliers”. A discussion of this research was had here - Do read this LingQ Twitter post "Ditch the 10,000 hour rule! . . ." - Open Forum in English - LingQ Language Forums

How does the “10,000 hour rule is not really a rule” concept apply to language learning?

Well, for native-level language acquisition we know “10,000 hours” hardly scratches the surface. Pretty much everyone will take around 40-50,000 hours of listening (to native audible content) and around 5,000 hours of speaking to reach a level that starts being acknowledged as “native like” – for verbal conversation, in their first language.

That is to say - 90% listening, 10% speaking - for around 50,000 hours – to begin to reach a native conversational level.

In this respect, Eriksson describing his “10,000 hour rule” as “not an exact number” and as “always a lot and more is better” is correct.

If you want to add further languages to your repertoire, then the amount of time it will take you is dependent on the languages you already know, and, the approaches you use.

So, if you go from a Indo - European language background to learning a Sino-language to a “native-like” level - as an example - how long will it take you?

Here is an example of a French guy, conversing at native-like level in Mandarin :

Here is his take on his hours, and approaches, before coming to China:

“I was literally doing 8-10 hours everyday for 4 or 5 years learning Chinese…

People always ask me; you know how Chinese is so hard to study, what did you do?..I’m trying to study and it is so hard, I spend time and it’s still too hard, and my answer is always –well, spend more time then…"

"There’s no secret…Every single person, that up til now, I mean I cannot think of one person, who told me, you know I am working so hard and I still don’t find a way to study properly to learn a language, not one of those people did an average of even 6-8 hours for 4 to 5 years. You know: 6-8 hours everyday,5 years,non-stop. …do that.”

“language is mostly imitation. I’d say at the beginning, imitating perfectly takes 90% listening and 10% practice. Radio is the best way on this matter, and TV to a lesser extent, but TV is fantastic because with the image you can guess the meaning of everything…”

So, before coming to China, he did 15,000 hours, with over 13,000 hours being listening to native content. The interview linked to was 7 years after coming to China. That’s an extra 20-25,000 hours, at least, on top of the initial 15,000 hours. So, it took around 40,000 hours at around 90 % listening – which is (not coincidentally) pretty much the same time as native Chinese speakers take - and he pretty much used the same approach…

Many people will claim the “10,000 hour rule” is “not a rule” – and they are correct – but most often they will do so to sell a product that claims to drastically reduce this time, or fake how quickly they can learn a skill. Be wary of these claims.

The “10,000 hour rule” is not an exact number - but - it is always a lot, and, more is better. For native-like language learning, and for a language that is very different to something you know already – then 50,000 hours with 90% listening is the norm.

Good luck.

Footnote 1: AJATT - 10,000 Hours: Building Listening Comprehension WordPress › Error

Footnote 2: It is worth keeping in mind that not all listening is created equal.

My guess:
Listening attentively = 1x benefit (base standard)

Listening while sleeping = 0x benefit (no value)
Listening inattentively = 0-0.1x benefit (low value)
Zoning in and out = 0.1-0.5x benefit (low value, but ok)
Listening attentively (mindfully) and reading attentively afterwards = 1.5x benefit, or even more (high value)

There are probably other steps.


One would have to be pretty thick to think that’s in any way an accurate rule. How can you say that it takes the same amount of time, 10,000 hours, to master any skill? Skills take wildly different amounts of time to master!

I would say it only takes about 1,000 hours (~1 year at 3 hours per day) to become a master of crochet, 5,000 for knitting. This is if one is intentionally trying to learn by making challenging patterns every day. By “master” I mean know all of the widely known techniques and be able to pick up any new techniques that people come up with (in books, etc) virtually instantly upon reading them.

I still don’t believe anyone can reasonably say “OK, 50,000 hours of listening and you’ll begin to reach native fluency.” The sample size just isn’t there. Very few people have reached true native fluency in a second language learned as an adult. I still haven’t found ONE PERSON who learned English after the age of 20 that I would say sounds 100% native to me. Something always gives them away. Even if you think someone’s Chinese is good enough to sound native, a real native may well not agree. Don’t get me started on “native-like”. It seems to mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean at the given time. A lot of people argue Luca the Italian polyglot has native-like fluency in English. I could immediately tell that he is not a native English speaker when I saw one of his videos, so apparently “native-like” means “not convincingly native under any circumstances”.

I dislike the tagline of this AJATT blog. “You don’t learn a language, you live it.” This seems to prop up the myth that you have to be a crazed, addicted language learner to make any progress. I saw this a lot on the HTLAL board and that’s why I don’t post there any more. I simply don’t believe this. You don’t have to stay locked in your apartment all day listening to podcasts to make good progress in a language. I would not have ever started learning if I found this post or his blog before trying because I have a life outside of language learning. You don’t need to listen for 50,000 hours in order to reach a decent level. If “native” is your goal, I don’t think you’ll ever get there, but you’re right, it would take a long ass time. Thankfully most people don’t have that goal. They just want to communicate and understand much of the native country’s media. That is doable in a reasonable amount of time.

Edit: Take my husband as an example. He didn’t start learning English until age 20 and didn’t speak with a native speaker until 28. I’d estimate he’s listened to native English speakers (mainly me) for 7200 hours maximum in his life. His English is nowhere near native, as your model would predict, as this is way under 50,000 hours. However, it’s still EXTREMELY good and he can function in any situation easily. I’d say that’s more along the lines of what most people aspire to.

I personally thought he sounded pretty American! However, after listening more carefully, it was clear that he was too cautious in speaking, making it obvious he wasn’t a native. He did mention in one of his videos, that he learned English ever since he was little.

Really? Have you been around many Europeans?

He sounds generically “European mimicking American accent” to me. Oddly I have a friend who was raised in Holland with a Dutch dad and American mom who sounds very similar to Luca. He definitely doesn’t sound stereotypically Italian like Mario or something. But his accent is quite easy for me to hear.

He also uses words unnaturally at least a few times per video.

His English is EXCELLENT. Nobody can deny that. But it’s not fooling most people who are paying attention. I simply do not think anyone I’ve heard has reached native fluency as an adult is all I’m sayin’.

I’m with the consensus of the group here saying that 10,000 hours isn’t a set number. Though, we all know that 10,000 is another pop culture reference that people use a lot from repeated use. Example, look at how we use 99%. “99% of the time…” “We are the 99%!”

Though 50,000 hours is an interesting number. That’s total hours of exposure and usage yes? Including passive exposure and reading? I personally am not a fan of passive learning such as passive listening. Listening to podcasts or the news in the background while I’m doing chemistry homework has proven, in my experience, to be a waste of time. Now, listening to LingQ with zero concentration tasks like the dishes, mowing the lawn (quite relaxing, by the way), or riding your bike, sure.

“But Dimethylamine, how am I going to get used to the sound of the language? Passive listening gets the most out of time!” Well, I honestly think if one was that concerned, they would do attentive listening to really try to pick out the sounds and intonations one is having trouble with. I’d be curious to test people on what they learned from X hours of passive listening versus someone that did Y hours of attentive listening to see the differences.

In the end, is speaking like a native my goal? Of course, but falling short of native, say C1 is a pretty good consulation prize. Also, at least where I live, having a slight accent or talking about your different heritage is a something cool to tell everyone. So, even if someone learns a language and doesn’t speak like a native, not blending in or having an accent can be quite charming.

kimo “A factor would need to be applied to yield focused equivalent time.”

dime “I’d be curious to test people on what they learned from X hours of passive listening versus someone that did Y hours of attentive listening to see the differences.”

The second footnote. That’s my guess. No one really knows.

Averages itself out, regardless, imo.

No one has zen focus over years.

I tell my Russian wife that I will soon be speaking Russian like a native - like a native of England! To put in 50,000 hours at 3 hours per day I will need to live until I am 115! If I can make myself understood with my pidgin Russian, then I think I am doing alright. The hard part is understanding what comes back at me!

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Great post.

I did some google searching because I dont actually know much around the “10000 hour rule”. I don’t know what Gladwell said about it, nor what research he based it off.

I found a myriad of articles all pointing out that its hardly a rule and the number doesn’t mean a whole lot, but they erroneously conclude that the “truth” would be far fewer hours (often times quoting pundits like Tim Ferris).

However this was mildly interesting:

In the end one thing should be clear: its an astounding amount of hard work, regardless of other factors, which goes into mastering anything. Languages are enormous complex beasts. Tens of thousands of hours can be poured into the study of them with effective learning techniques and one would still have a lot to learn.

So what really matters is being able to set realistic expectations and being able to come up with a workable plan to get there. For someone who can only put in a couple of hours worth of study a week, they may find that what they can realistically expect to achieve is depressingly small. Theres really no way around it.

I can’t forgive the post, because it was excellent.

My Chinese isn’t that great, maybe a middle of the way B2, but I’m getting better and better at figuring out who speaks it well. This French guy is amazing. I wouldn’t be able to tell him from a native speaker without video. Tones superb. He is much better than Glossika, for example, and Glossika is damn good.

I believe what the Word Brain said about being able to parse a language adequately - it takes 1500-2000 hours of attentive listening. That won’t make you native like; I consider it to be the C1 threshold. And it only works if you are doing all the other things that are required to allow you to progress in a language (reading, writing, pronunciation, vocabulary, translation, conversing, etc). Those other things condition your brain to allow the listening to stick better, or maybe even at all. Otherwise the number will be bigger.

“Remember the guy who said he was going to learn Chinese to C1 in 3 months? 3 years later he was still at an A-level…” He was at an A-level after the 3 months; does this mean he didn’t continue to study it? I haven’t heard anything about him in a while.

“Listening attentively (mindfully) and reading attentively afterwards = 1.5x” I personally wouldn’t consider this as boosting the listening factor over 1x; I’d just consider the reading part to be a good activity to condition my brain.

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I like what Wolfgar says about conditioning the mind. I have studied Russian for nearly three months for approx. 3 hours per day. I consider this as laying the foundation, conditioning the mind to now begin to understand spoken Russian better.