Why Do We Compare Ourselves to Natives?

I’ve been thinking a lot latey about how small children acquire language so ‘seemingly’ rapidly. So I did some very crude calculations:

I think we can all agree that a 7 year-old native speaker is quite capable in the language; certainly conversationally fluent; and can understand just about everything relating to their lives and what’s important to them at that age.

So how many hours of input alone have they accumulated? I thought I’d lean towards a more conservative estimate, just to ensure I’m not exaggerating anything.

Let’s say a baby is awake for 8-9 hours/day in the first year (I have no idea if that’s correct, but it seems reasonable). And then 10-14 hours between the age of 1-7 (we’ll say 12 hours). So that’s 3.1k hours in their first year of life, and 26.3k hours during the next 6 years. We’ll call it 30k hours of time awake.

I’m not going to count it, but you could also add in the 9 months we’re in the womb (or at least some of the latter months) to the listening figure.

I’d imagine that they’re hearing (and later speaking/reading) the language for approximately 75% of their day. So that’s 22.5k hours of language input/output spread over 7 years.

They also have the absolute perfect learning environment -surrounded by native speakers, people to practice with, patient teachers, peers, perfect i+1 comprehensable input almost every day, an insane amount of motivation with an isatiable drive to learn the language to survive in the world.

As adult learners, most of us probably have a maximum of 2-4 hours/day. We also have a less than optimal learning environment with hardly any opportunity to engage native speakers. We have to make the effort to seek out learning material - nothing is given to us on a plate. And to top it all off, we’re listening to, and speaking our native language, of which the words and grammar are very deeply ingrained in our brains, and continue to be constantly reinforced for approximately 80% our day immersed in language.

So assuming 3 hours/day, (which would be a lot for most adults) that’s 7.7k hours over the same 7 year period, in a suboptimal environment, with huge interference from another language, many more distractions etc. And possibly a less flexible brain, that needs a huge amount of rewiring.


  • 3 times the input/output
  • Perfect learning environment
  • Infinite practice opportunities
  • More flexible brains (unproven, but seems likely)
  • No other language interference (for decades)
  • Unrivalled motivation/survival instinct
  • Very interesting content provided for them on a plate.


  • 1/3 of the exposure
  • Suboptimal learning environment
  • Very limited pratice opportunities
  • Less malleable brain
  • HUGE interference from another language
  • Motivation issues
  • Have to actively seek interesting content.


Why do we ever compare ourselves to children? If we’ve done 5 years of 3 hours/day language learning, we should technically be comparing ourselves to a kid of 1.5 years of age, and that’s just on pure immersion hours, it’s not even factoring in all the other advantages children have.

OK, so we have the advantage of using another language we’re fluent in to make sense of more complicated language, but that doesn’t add up to fluency, it just means that we can decipher complexity (particularly in texts) more easily, and that we have a grasp of more concepts.

Is ‘native level’ fluency ever realistic? When you think that an adult native speaker has racked up around 40-50k hours of immersion just by the time they’re 18, most of which came with all the benefits listed.

At 3 hours/day it would take us 40-50 years to catch up to that, and in the meantime, those natives are continuing to get even more input/output practice than we could ever dream of.

Anway, just some random thoughts about the subject. It kind of annoys me when we compare ourselves to a child at x age Vs our x number of hours of L2 study.

IMO, It’s not at all a fair comparison, and I think most of us waaaaaaaaay overestimate how good we actually are. When someone states that they’ve been “studying an hour/day for 3 years, and my level is akin to a native 6 year-old,” are they being honest there? My guess is that 6 year-old is actually quite a bit more advanced than they are, and, as it turns out, for very good reason.


In fact, comparing to children don’t make sense at all. I don’t know why people even go that way. For someone it’s just marketing for selling you a method, for others it’s just poor linguistic knowledge or it’s a just a reference to at least speak at the same speed in an average normal conversation.

And you should also realize that with all that level of exposure most of natives people do a lot of grammar mistakes and they are poorly able to write!

Even more, they have historical references together, songs they share and that have shaped a country, facts, TV shows and many other things. An outsider cannot ever have that type of connection and most of us honestly don’t even care.

There are people that think that a C2 level is a native level which doesn’t make sense. It’s just the top level for a second language learner. Nothing more, nothing less.

And when you find yourself at that level, you can easily have difficulty to understand a child but you are also able to have complex conversations with anyone. And you are often able to grammatically correct many native speakers if you want to.

And you definitely write better than half of them. University level worldwide is only 7%.

In fact, if you want to learn a new language you go back to study your own. Unless you are a linguistic or have done a very good job studying your own language. Most of the time you go back to re-study your own foundation as well. Imho.

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I totally agree that C2 isn’t ‘native.’ I honestly don’t don’t think it’s even close, and not only for the cultural reasons. As you say, it’s simply the highest level for an L2 speaker. IMO, accent aside, one can go undetected over the course of a few sentences, or even a short conversation, but if you spend enough time with a non native (who learned the language as an adult), I think it would become clear quite quickly that they’re not at a native level - there will always be gaps.

I’m not sure about going back to study your own language to learn L2, unless you want to go down the ‘skill building’ grammar route and attempt to apply rules to the new language?

As for correcting native’s grammar, I wouldn’t go there TBH. Most natives know when they haven’t used correct grammar (even if it’s something they use all the time), but it’s often just a quirk (grammatically incorrect) that has arisen within their particular area of the country. I know plenty of people from the Essex area of England who constantly say “we was” in conversation but would never write that (although some probably would). :grin:

I’ve always thought that a good way to separate someone at a native level (essentially natives), and someone who is C2, or whatever, would be to see how many different ways they can say the same thing, and at what speed. My guess is a native would always win that, and it wouldn’t even be close. I would think a high school level educated native would crush an L2 university graduate at that game every single time. Obviously some L2 learners will know some less frequent words translated from the their native language, which can perhaps give them the appearance of more knowledge in the language, but that’s not a higher degree of fluency. At least not how I would define it.


Yes, absolutely. But usually as natives we use the language but we don’t learn it very well because we don’t need to. As you say, a native have countless way to say the same thing. In any case it depends on their level of education.

Maybe English is an easier language with less “grammatical” problems but I can tell you that college students do a lot of grammatical mistakes when they write even if they graduate. I know for sure in many Latin countries. For example written French is very difficult and I believe they still have dictation drills at 14 or 15yo.

I know we compare natives only thinking about speaking and listening skills but if you expand it to reading comprehension and writing things change. Because it depends on your education and intellectual capabilities. Many people are not able to abstract thinking or critical thinking for example. So complex reading could be more difficult for a native than for a C2 level depending on the different “brain” skills. Yes, they read it but they don’t understand it or they tell you that they did but they didn’t.

I personally had to study again what is an adjective, adverb and so many other things otherwise I couldn’t understand any explanation of the new language. I didn’t know or care about what a preposition was until I started to seriously study a new language and so on. With a more difficult language I need to dig deeper on my own language, what’s a proposition, a subordinate and so on.

Yes, if you think about learning a language without studying grammar that’s another story. But if they tell you that in German substantives are with a capital letter you need to know what a substantive is and what an adjective is and so on. And this is NOT so automatic for the majority of native speakers. Imho.


Yeah, interesting. I think you’re right about reading and writing, they’re definitely more of a learned skill, I mean so are speaking and listening, but they come easier (or is that because we all practice those skills all the time? Probably.)

I feel like grammatical ‘lingo’ is something you’d definitely need to be aware of if you’re going down the path of ‘skill building,’ but as you said yourself, you had to go back to your native language to learn that, but you’re very fluent in your native language (I assume both the spoken and written language) so therefore it wasn’t needed at all whilst acquiring your native tongue (at least to a point).

FWIW, I think that 99% of people probably will need a little of that because we simply don’t have the time it requires to completely acquire everything. I personally believe that acquisition, gained from comprehensible input, by far trumps a skill building method (which I honestly believe will only take you so far), but for natural acquisition to be really effective, one probably needs literally 10k+ (likely more if it’s a very different language from what you already know) hours of almost uninterrupted immersion. As I said, that’s not possible for 99% of us.

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Now I’m gonna say something random and not proved.

I believe any language core comes from sound, which is probably how we exist: sounds and vibrations. We naturally understand and interact with these forces that we rationally don’t understand.

That’s why we learn at a native level in a different way and we are able to speak and listen to by synchronizing ourselves. It’s more emotional, subconscious and emphatic.

Then we came with rationality and trying to understand how we interact we created grammar rules and structures, which often don’t make sense because they have more exceptions than certitudes. This is because we don’t understand how sound or those patterns work so we used the limited capacity of categorizations and rules to try to grasp what a language is. And to me failed miserably.

A “grammar” book based on sounds and few core concepts would be probably easier and more logic than what we have now. But it’s just a random opinion.

So writing and reading are more learnt from a rational and frontal cortex point of view based on our wrong assumptions that later became part of our structure.

Anyway, this stuff could be endless and boring. :smiley:

But I believe that a person that is naturally able to grasp the core sound of any language would probably learn it a lot faster than any other without much trouble. Of course, you can’t have historical references of a country, songs and so on. But you could grasp everything very easily and it’s a fact that we often study a language in a completely wrong way. Imho.

A related post a while ago – The “10,000 Hour Rule” Is Not A Rule - Language Forum @ ...

I think your analysis raises an important question whether it is ethically okay for Steve to inflate his language profile? What do you think about it?

Too many inacurate assumtions. If you’re gonna base your conclusions on the numbers, you have to make sure your calculations have sense.
The calculation of input per day should factor the density (and quality and ability to take the advantage of it) of the input. So you should include much more things into your calculations, not just time awake = input :smiley:

In terms of input, adults have unprecedently (for popular languages) more strong advantage over children, if they have 2-4 hours for practice per day. Because of the density and the quality of input, because of the 2x speed feature, because of their trained (to learn) brain, which is also familiar with complex concepts at least in their mother tongue so they won’t struggle trying to get meanings of the things they don’t have experience in.

Comparing yourself to kids have sense because the way they are learning the language is the way our brain is equipped to learn languages. Sure, we can’t re-bear ourselves to the TL environment, so culturally there always will be some gap between natives and you.
But it’s not about the language, because I don’t think you’ll success in blending in a group of American teenagers of 2022 from Texas even though you know English as a native. So you just can’t sound as ANY native even if you’re native too.

Also, fluency doesn’t seem to me as a linguistic term. I’m pretty sure if I wanted to, I could build up my fluency on a very small range of expressions:
I like you
I’d like to eat.
I don’t like pain.
I pain you = I wanna hit you
eat pain = I have a stomachache
you pain me
and so on

Fluency is when you’re comfortable and clear enough. It can show nothing about your level at the language overall. Because what would you say about the completely illiterate but fluent part of the population? They’re exactly bad at their language, but still fluent and confident.
I’d say, the worse they are at something, the more confident they are))

Lol, I swear, children are so hard to understand. Especially from ages 2-3. They sound so cute, but also like they have their tongues cut out. I have to ask my 5 year old niece what my 2 year old niece is saying all the time.

Also, I have to agree. A Korean friend of mine recommended that I look at the English definition of the word I am learning in Romanian. I tried it, turns out I really don’t know what I’m talking about half the time.


Love this: the worse they are at something, the more confident they are.

→ The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know


Personally speaking I reckon the main difference is merely vocabulary. Adults typically have better grammar than children and I believe (WAG) that the same is true of adult learners vs native speaker children. The big jump is at the teenage level. Native teenagers blow away adult SL learners.
But I don’t think it matters. I’m at best similar to a ten year old in vocab and grammar in Spanish but conceptually and experience wise I blow away a teenager or an early twenties university graduate because although I have less precise vocabulary (I need more words) I can express more concepts even if it take me more words to do so.

2c for what it’s worth.

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When I was in Japan I couldn’t help comparing myself to natives because they were everywhere. I wanted to join the group so to speak. It makes sense that most people inevitably compare themselves to natives no matter how unfair it is. I had a friend though from Afghanistan and his attitude was much healthier. He legitimately didn’t compare his Japanese to natives but did compare it to other foreigners sometimes and if some noob to Japan for example sounded better than him than that bothered him and made him want to improve. Logically his attitude made more sense than mine but I couldn’t just stop comparing myself to natives and feeling bad about my Japanese.

I think one of the main reasons that it’s gained traction to compare to (small) children is the way we acquire language. We do not drop a baby into a grammar class before they have picked up vocabulary. The baby listens and absorbs words first. Then they make a (horrible) attempt to speak with crappy grammar. It’s not really till you go to elementary school that you are taught grammar.

Compare and contrast how (teenagers and adults) typically try to learn a language: some person droning at the front of the class about grammar rules when nobody has learned any vocabulary yet. And written even before they can speak!
I think that you can make a strong case that simulating the way a child learns a language is way better than trying to learn the classical way.
I know tons of people who have years and years of french in high school (which I managed to avoid) but who cannot speak a word of french. It’s crazy that we keep trying to teach people languages with a clearly broken system.



My 2c?
We evolved to speak.
Reading and writing is a completely different thing. It’s essentially a type of symbolic algebra. Where a = concept1, b= concept2 instead of a=1 b=2 etc.
Which is why IMO it’s crazy to teach people to try to read and write foreign languages before the average person can speak.
IMO the only people who can learn a foreign language by means of reading and writing are academic/intellectual types to begin with.
Anybody at all, on the other hand can learn a spoken variant of a language just by being immersed in it. I heard of one Australian guy learned mandarin by being locked up in jail in China for six months. Six months to learn mandarin is impressive. I wonder if drug dealing gave him any kind of advantage lol?

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100% this is my theory too. It is also my self-experimentation method. I think it works. I use lingQ for the sounds instead of the reading. I can understand my spoken languages way way better than I can read them.

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My grandson moved to France when he was 14 years old. He could not speak any French at all. He went to a French school and after one year moved in to live with a French family. After two years he was speaking French fluently - native speakers have said that you cannot tell he is not French. He is still in France and, will be 30 this year. He is successfully running his own landscaping business. I think it took about 9K hours of immersion to go from zero to fluent and English was already ingrained. Whilst he is fluent I sometimes tease him that I know more words because I read more!


I think that’s a much healthier and more legit way. I don’t really compare myself to natives as such other than “no way I could pass” but if I get “you almost have no accent you speak really good x” I’m satisfied.