The Time it Takes


Consider this:

… it takes “an educated English speaker 1,300 hours to achieve the native-proficiency of an educated native speaker of Chinese, while it would only take about 480 hours to achieve the same level in French or Spanish.”
(How to Learn Chinese in 2,200 Not-So-Easy Lessons, The Washington Post)

Length of study time required to achieve proficiency for an American English speaker

  • Category I: Afrikaans, Basque, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian-Creole, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish. (720 hours)
  • Category II: German, Indonesian, Malay, Romanian, Urdu, Swahili. (960 hours)
  • Category III: Albanian. Armenian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Croatian, Czech, Dari, Finnish, Georgian, Greek. Hebrew, Hindi, … (1,440 hours)
  • Category IV: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean. (2,160 hours)

“Duration of Language Study”, Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition, Betty Lou Leaver, et al) [adapted and simplified from table 1.1 in text]

The point of the excerpts above is this: The time required to learn a foreign language varies from one language to another. Of course, there are many factors involved in learning a foreign language. Chinese, which is well-known as being difficult to learn (for Americans, that is; the length of time required to learn a foreign language is as much a measure of “relative distance” between languages as the inherent difficulty of a given language — presumably, Chinese wouldn’t be as difficult for native Korean speakers), doesn’t have grammatical gender at all. (The main difficulty in Chinese, tonal speech patterns and lack of an alphabet are rightfully subjects for another blog.) For the most part, a foreign language’s similarity to English is what makes it easier to learn — easier for the English-speaker, that is. Similarities like using basically the same alphabet, having similar vocabulary, and so on.

However, it’s interesting to note that those languages with no grammatical grammar or those with simple grammatical grammar (male and female only; nouns very regularly ending in “a” and “o” to indicate gender; and so on) are among the languages that require the least study time to achieve proficiency, while languages with more complex grammatical gender (male, female and neuter; no hard and fast rules, so much memorization required) are among those that take more time to learn.

So, the point of this post is: Grammatical gender imposes some cost on language learners. It’s not a “free” or “painless” feature of a language. It takes time to learn and time to teach. The cost of that time is something that should be considered.


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