Thursday, April 7, 2011

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75 Times

Yes.  In this case 75 is the magic number.  It is believed that a learner needs to hear a word about 75 times before they have acquired it.  If you don’t believe me, look here (

First, let’s look at learned vs acquired.  There is a BIG difference.

Learned - How many times have you learned about the rules of the present perfect?  How many rules have you written in your notebooks?  How many times have you got it wrong when speaking?  How many times have you needed to stop and think if you should use present perfect or past simple?

Probably you have had LOTS of lessons about present perfect vs past simple.  You’ve learned it and you know the rules but you still need to think about it and sometimes you know you get it wrong.  That’s because you haven’t acquired it.

Acquired – Ok, now if I say to you, “Hey, how’re you doing?” then you will probably say something like “I’m fine thanks.”  Now, were you thinking about the grammar? 

Were you thinking, “Is it ‘I fine’ or ‘I am fine’?”   Probably not.  You don’t need to think about that because you have acquired it.  You have heard it so many times, from so many different people.  You don’t think about it, you just do it, you just know it, you just have it.

That’s the difference between learning and acquiring.  I never really learned English, I simply acquired it.  We don’t learn our native languages, we acquire them.  Yes, of course, we learn about our languages at school but we already know them because we have already acquired them.

So how long does it take to acquire new words and phrases in English?  75 times, more or less.  You need to hear the word, the phrase, the context approximately 75 times before it is comfortably part of your English.

But remember this is not only passive hearing.  It is active listening.  You can help yourself and speed up this process by actively listening.  I know lots of students who don’t have very advanced English, but they know every single exact word to their favourite English-speaking songs.  How many times do you think they listened to those songs?

It is important to learn the rules of a language we want to use well.  It helps our understanding.  However, you also need to make an effort, use the language you’re not sure about a lot, make sure you are corrected a lot and make sure you do lots of active listening for what you want to understand better.  Past tense verbs, phrasal verbs or conditionals, for example.

So, that English podcast you listened to, that TV show you watched, that IELTS listening practice you have… have you listened to them enough times?  Almost certainly not.  Just listen to it one more time, go on!

What do you think and what is your experience of learning and acquisition?  As always, I look forward to your opinions.



  1. Gordon,
    Learning and acquisition are quite interesting points.
    I was having a chat with my son yesterday night. He had asked me in what language I felt more at ease, French or English.
    An interesting question if you think I was born in Argentina and have lived all my life in this country.
    My answer was:
    My French is acquired and my English is learnt.
    I spoke French at home - I didn't study it.
    When I was a teenager I started studying French just to sit for exams.
    As for my English, I went to a bilingual school when I was ten years old and had to "study" English for school and for survival. All my classmates spoke English and most had American or British parents, so I had to speak English when I went to their homes.
    So, for me one is more "academic" than the other.

  2. Sylvine, welcome to the blog!

    That's a varied upbringing linguistically! Since you are a native of Argentina I wonder where your Spanish fits into all this? Would I be right to assume that you would consider it to be, like your French, acquired rather than learnt? Would you say that nowadays you have any distinction in your head between your "acquired" and "learnt" languages?

    Personally speaking, my Spanish is really quite low considering my experience but, as I might have said in another post, I'm not a very disciplined language learner. Nonetheless there are certain phrases I've acquired in Spanish which now have 'uprooted' their English equivalents, regardless of what country I'm in. Phrases such as "como quieres", "lo que sea" and "mas o menos" along with "aguacates" and "cebolla" (don't ask me why, I have no idea). These words and phrases are now as natural to me as the English (and more so in a couple of cases).

    Still, the acquisition of a few phrases is very different from an entire language and how a person manages more than two languages is amazing to me, no matter how understandable academically.


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