Wednesday, June 15, 2011

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How much time do I need?

How long is a piece of string?
This is a question that probably every language learner thinks about when they start a new language: ‘How long will it take me?’ or ‘When will I be able to have a conversation?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. There is an answer but it is different for each person. Fortunately, we have a phrase in English to reply to questions like this: “How long is a piece of string?

The answer to both of these questions is ‘It depends’.

What does it depend on?

Many, many things such as opportunity, motivation, how you learn, as well as what the best way is for you to learn personally. However, I will mention one thing specifically: learning doesn't and can’t happen all in class.

1:4 Ratio of Time

First of all, a ratio is a relationship between two numbers. If I spend 1 hour preparing dinner and 1 hour eating dinner that means the relationship between preparing and eating is 1:1. However, if I spend 4 hours preparing dinner and only 2 hours eating it, then the ratio is 4:2 (or better to say 2:1) because 4 hours preparation equals 2 hours eating. (Don’t worry, this is NOT a blog about mathematics.)

Recently I read a post about 10,000 hours on another teacher’s blog: “10,000 hours of hard practice to achieve mastery of one’s given discipline.” This basically means 10,000 hours of practice to be really good at something.

This started me thinking about 10,000 hours to learn a language. Maybe we can ‘break this down’ (divide this) into the four parts of language and communication: speaking, reading, writing and listening. Speaking is chatting with friends, talking to colleagues, speaking on the phone, etc, etc. Listening is also chatting with friends but can also be watching TV, watching youTube, listening to podcasts or audio language lessons, listening to music or listening to the radio. Reading can be done with a website, a blog, Facebook, a newspaper or a book – I recommend trying a book. Writing can also be on Facebook, writing on a blog, posting a comment on a blog (hint, hint, see 'Post a Comment' below), writing emails or even writing a journal.

So 10,000 hours is a lot of time but there are many different ways you can use that time.  Remember, it's not all work - a lot of the time it can be a lot of fun!

Now, I saw an infographic about how many hours of class an native English speaker (like me) needs to learn another world language. The shortest time (for similar European languages) was about 600 class hours. However, the hardest languages for native English speakers (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean for example) need 2200 class hours. These numbers are obviously averages but they give a general idea.

The information did not talk about learning English, but we can assume that English will be between 600-2200 class hours.

So I hope you see the importance of practice outside the classroom. Here is my last piece of mathematics, I promise:

2000 hours of class + 8000 hours of practice outside the classroom = 10000 hours 

This is a 1:4 ratio. For each hour you are learning English in class, you need four more hours of practice outside class… if you want to be proficient.

What do you think? What do you think your ratio of class:outside English work has been this year so far?


  1. What an interesting post! May I use this to encourage my friends and students to study more English outside the classroom? I thank you in advance!

  2. Of course! This is here for everyone and anyone. Thanks for your kind words.

  3. Great post! And very clearly written! I will definitely use it to explain the importance of outside-class practice to my students. Many thanks!


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