question of how long it takes to learn a language is not
asked as frequently as the question, Can I really learn to speak
a language? Some people would be very glad if they could say
even a few phrases in a foreign language with a passable accent.
Others mainly want to read great works of literature. And still
others may aspire to speak and write another language as fluently
as their mother tongue.
travel abroad became common, foreign languages were associated
in this country with educated people and immigrants. The former
were often interested only in reading and writing a particular
language, while the latter could speak their native language,
but had little occasion to read or write it after coming to the
United States. Some educated people resembled the upper class
British gentlemen of the nineteenth century, who typically "knew"
French, but were disinclined to imitate the "peculiar"
sounds a Frenchman makes when speaking.
todays world, many people who study a foreign language chiefly
desire to speak it. It is important, therefore, to estimate how
well a person can expect to speak a language after studying it
for a certain number of hours and conversely, how many
hours it may take him to reach the fluency he has in mind. Several
estimates follow on how long it takes to achieve various sorts
of mastery, based on FSI data, and personal research.
FSI (Foreign Service Institute) Rating Scale
U.S. government agencies use the FSI Absolute Language Proficiency
Ratings to measure a prospective employees ability to use
a foreign language in his work. Once employed, he periodically
undergoes the same type of rating as a basis for promotion. The
person to be rated is interviewed by one or more trained testers,
who are always native speakers. They converse with him for ten
to twenty minutes, probing his command of pronunciation, grammar,
and vocabulary. Then they pool their judgments to assign him a
rating. The lowest rating is 1, the highest 5, and any rating
can be modified by a plus or minus.
rating designates a particular degree of mastery of the language
for business and social purposes:
proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine travel
needs and minimum courtesy requirements.
working proficiency. The person is able to satisfy routine
social demands and limited work requirements.
professional proficiency. The person can speak the language
with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate
effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical,
social, and professional topics.
professional proficiency. The person uses the language fluently
and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional
or bilingual proficiency. The person has speaking proficiency
equivalent to that of an educated native speaker.
long, one wonders, does it take a person to achieve the minimum
1, and how much longer after that to reach a 2 or a 3?
researchers studied the performance of all their students during
a threeyear period, noting the ratings they received after
various periods of training. Table 1 shows the results for the
"easy" languages and for the "hard" languages.
Incidentally, the definition of "easy" and "hard"
were arrived at by including only Group 1 languages for
the most part the "Romance" languages under the
"easy" languages, while "hard" languages included
Groups 2,3, and 4.languages all other languages
as listed in the second part of the Table below. Whether this
is the most valid, or even useful definition of easy and hard
to learn languages, depends to a large degree upon whether one
feels that language instruction, regardless of learner or teacher
preference, must start with each individual learner gradually
acquiring an increasing control of the spoken language, before
adding written skills, or with the current standard academic approach
to avoid language as a spoken skill at first, and work with an
eclectic, mixed approach using a written grammar translation
and oraldrill combination, perhaps with a language laboratory,
or combinations of film, CDROM and/or other equipment. There
are advocates on both sides.
Languages: (Ratings of FSI students speaking a Group 1 language
after specified Periods of training.)
weeks (240 hours) 1/1+
16 weeks (480 hours) 2
24 weeks (720 hours) 2+
"Hard" Languages: (Ratings of FSI students speaking
a Group 24 language after specified Periods of training.)
weeks (360 hours) 1/1+
24 weeks (720 hours) 1+ /2
44 weeks (1320 hours) 2/2+ /3
Are the "Easy" and "Hard" Languages?
1: French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian,
Group 2: Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian, Urdu
Group 3: Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian,
Lao, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese
Group 4: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean
reality, these time estimates are a little lower than they at
first appear; holidays and other lost time reduce them by about
10 percent. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear. If you are a language
learner of average ability, and you undertake an "easy"
language, it will probably take you about 240 hours to get to
the first level of mastery in speaking it, and double that to
get to Level 2. If you are slower than average at learning languages,
allow 50 percent more time, if faster, 50 percent less.
figures are based on a particular type of instruction: the FSI
intensive course where one studies a language for six hours a
day, five days a week, in a class of no more than 10 students,
led by an experienced linguist and a welltrained native
drillmaster. The school is a languagelearning paradise,
the students are highly motivated, and optimum results are achieved.
Yet these estimates are reasonably valid for people who, like
most of us, have no choice but to attend a conventional course
that meets fortyfive minutes a day or a couple of evenings
attention is limited. No one can absorb knowledge steadily for
six hours a day, week after week; some of the time in intensive
courses is necessarily "wasted" in relaxing, clearing
ones mind, or plain daydreaming. Moreover, things that seem
confusing one day sometimes clear up by the next, after they have
settled into place in ones mind. This "incubation"
factor favors a nonintensive learning schedule. In short,
it is not certain that people who spread their language learning
over a longer period necessarily require more total hours than
those who concentrate. They may even require fewer.
overriding message is that anyone can learn a foreign language,
but some people are quicker at it than others. Still, language
learning is a serious commitment, and if ones aim is to
speak it comfortably (say, 2+ on the FSI scale), this is likely
to take the equivalent of six months of fulltime study.
your objective is to master the language fully in speech and writing,
then you may have to devote at least a year and a half, most of
it spent in the foreign country, to reach this objective. A good
plan would be to study the language for three to six months at
home, and then go to the foreign country for at least a year,
during which time you must speak only the foreign language. At
the end of this time, you would understand most people and even
television and movies, read almost any written matter without
a dictionary, and perhaps write with a modicum of style. Adults
who go abroad to live find that after several months of getting
adjusted to speaking and understanding in everyday situations,
they can then begin to penetrate the language and participate
in the life of the country.
people are dismayed by time estimates that run to hundreds of
hours. They feel that this is more time than they are willing
to commit. They should reflect on the fact that one year from
today they will be one year older whether they undertake this
learning task or not. The only question is, whether on that day,
they are going to be well along toward mastering the language
they have dreamed of knowing, or whether it will still be only
Pimsleur Language Teaching Methodology
noted earlier these FSI learning rates and achievement levels
for easy and hard languages are based on learners being trained
with a particular FSI Intensive Language Training Program. It
is revealing to compare these results with results based on learners
using the Pimsleur Selfinstructional Language Comprehensive
Programs, which consist of three coordinated levels containing
30 audio lessons in each level. Under the Pimsleur Methodology,
learners accomplish one 30minute lesson each and every day.
Pimsleur method of language training is based upon the assumption
that every natural language contains within itself all of the
keys to unlock the code of that language. Therefore Pimsleur introduces
the learner to any new language by exposing him to spoken language
in use i.e. in actual communication. This practice permits the
learner to actually "hear" precisely what he needs to
hear in order to identify and to understand who is doing what
to whom, when, why, and how. In this type of training the learner
gains the most powerful aspect of language, which is to be able
to hear statements, to understand the situation, and eventually
to respond with his own choices.
short, he will be using all of the meaningcarrying elements
human languages have developed over generations to become the
incredible tool it has become! What more does a learner of a language
need in order to behave as a normal human being and engage in
spoken communication with his language community? Teaching him
the rules of grammar in English is not an asset he can afford
to waste his time on at this stage of his language learning!
of this essential learning can happen and be acquired as
languageinuse only if the learner is allowed to concentrate
on being "exposed" directly to the target language while
it is actuallyinuse! This means the adult learner
can "do his own thing" and having previously developed
his linguistic skills, will acquire gradual control of this new
language as he did his mother tongue. It will be as natural as
talking! And we have made no mention here of the part that learning
to reapply and reuse the same sort of previously
acquired linguistic skills will mean to learners. It will also
mean they will learn faster and easier and their success will
give them the confidence and assurance they need to stay the course
important principle in the development of adult spokenlanguage
communication skills training is that learners progress from a
compound linguistic system, in which the items of the second language
are added to the native language to form a coordinate system.
In this coordinate system the two languages can function independently,
as appears to be the case with pure bilinguals.
language acquisition itself, with the exception of those with
severe pathologies, everyone who has acquired his native tongue,
can, under appropriate conditions, learn to understand, to
speak and communicate effectively in additional languages.
second language will be acquired by a normal human being if and
only if particular, whole instances of the language are modeled
for him and if his own particular acts of using the language are
selectively reinforced. The critical point is that unless a learner
has learned them as languageinuse, he has not learned
them as language, and that if he has learned enough such instances,
he will be able to understand and to effectively communicate in
the foreign language.
second language learning, instructional procedures have a considerable
effect in determining the way in which the two languages coexist
psychologically. The objective of spoken proficiency levels
effective communication depends upon the instructional
methodology of the teaching/learning Program.
the space of each Pimsleur lesson of approximately 30 intensive
minutes a day, the adult learner will experience reallanguage
use. As he does this, each individual learner builds his own tapestry
of language, whether it be in one, or several additional languages,
after the first one. Pimsleur learners know they have the power
to use languages in real life!
learners who follow the schedule of Pimsleur training, will
test out as follows, on the ACTFL as well as the FSI Proficiency
Scales. The ACTFL (The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign
Languages) has developed their own official Proficiency Scale
as a statement of the general aims and goals for the foreign language
teaching profession. ACTFL and the FSI have published equivalencies
between the two Scales.
I Pimsleur Instruction 30lessons, after only 15 cumulative
hours, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediatelow spoken proficiency,
(a FSI 1 rating), able to survive and cope in country; able
to ask and answer questions dealing with everyday situations,
and as well earn respect and cooperation for your fluency, your
pronunciation, and courtesy.
II Pimsleur Instruction 30 more lessons, after the second
15 cumulative hours, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediatemid
spoken proficiency, (a FSI 1 rating), able to exchange information
about yourself, your family, or associates, and avoid basic cultural
III Pimsleur Instruction 30 more Lessons, after the final
15 hours of the Comprehensive Program for a total of 45
hours of training, you will be at the ACTFL Intermediatehigh
proficiency, (a FSI 1+ rating), able to participate in casual
conversations and conduct everyday transactions with success and
pleasure in your achievements.
use of the ACTFL Proficiency Scale in this publication does not
constitute endorsement of any private Enterprise or product by
The American Counsel On the Teaching of Foreign Language.