On Learning a New Language
Written by Ron Ohlhausen

In this era of globalization, knowing another language (that is, a foreign language or second language, as contrasted to our native or first language) can be both practical and rewarding. Whether for business, travel, or personal growth, learning another language widens our horizons and increases our options. It also provides a remarkable opportunity to show that we value other people and cultures.

It is well known that most Americans do not speak a second language. We tend to rely on the belief that English is a universal language and that others should learn our language, rather than we learning their language. While it is true that English is fairly widespread throughout the world, it may also be true that we are demonstrating a degree of cultural superiority, indifference, or laziness by not making a more sincere attempt to communicate with others in their native tongue.

In many countries English is a core subject in their system of education from early education through the middle years and beyond. Our own educational system would be wise to emphasize more foreign language learning. Fortunately, some school systems in the U.S. are starting to take that approach.

Assuming that you want to learn another language, and that you are no longer a student in our public school system, then you have a number of choices to make.

What language do you want to learn?

This is probably based on where you live, your family history or ethnicity, or which country you plan to visit on a regular basis for business or pleasure. For example, if you live in the Southwest, knowing Spanish could be very helpful; or, if your grandparents emigrated from Germany and you have a number of relatives living in Germany that you would like to visit, then you might want to improve your German; or, if your company headquarters is in Japan, necessitating frequent visits there, you probably need a working knowledge of Japanese; or, if you visited Tuscany, Italy, loved the region, and want to return on a regular basis, you might try to expand your Italian.

What level of fluency or proficiency do you need or desire?

The International Language Roundtable (ILR) established a scale, initially designed by the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), describing a number of language abilities for various levels of proficiency. The levels and a few language abilities for each level are:

IRL Level 1 (or S-1), Elementary Proficiency. “Able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements,” can ask and answer basic questions and communicate basic needs, but has limited vocabulary and makes frequent grammatical mistakes in writing.

ILR Level 2 (or S-2), Limited Working Proficiency. “Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements” while lacking control of grammar.

ILR Level 3 (or S-3), Professional Working Proficiency. “Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics” while displaying a broad general vocabulary and good grammar. This is the standard level to describe the number of people who know a given language worldwide.

ILR Level 4 (or S-4), Full Professional Proficiency. “Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs” with only rare errors of grammar or pronunciation.

ILR Level 5 (or S-5), Native or Bilingual Proficiency. This level specifies “a speaking fluency equivalent to that of an educated native speaker” while demonstrating complete fluency and knowledge of idioms and colloquialisms.

Note: Levels 1-5, or S1 to S5, generally refer to speaking ability, while R1 to R5 refer to reading ability. However, for all practical purposes any given level of proficiency would imply comparable speaking and reading skills.

Most Americans visiting a foreign country on an occasional basis would be well suited with a Level 1 (S-1), Elementary Proficiency. In fact, I would advocate that for a first or second visit to a foreign country, one only needs to know a limited selection of basic words or phrases (especially the polite expressions) to enhance their experience.

How long will it take you to learn your chosen language?

That would depend on the level of proficiency that you desire and the methods of learning that you choose. The Foreign Service Institute has established estimates as to how long it would take to reach Level 3, Professional Working Proficiency. Generally, FSI students are in their 30’s, are native speakers of English, and have some foreign language experience.

Category I Languages that are closely related to English (such as Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish) and taught at the FSI will take about 600 class hours (25 hours per week over a period of 24 weeks) plus about 400 hours of self-directed study (17.5 hours per week for 24 weeks). Therefore, most FSI students would attain Level 3 Proficiency in about 1,000 hours of study. A few other languages (German, Indonesian, Malay, and Swahili) would take 750-900 class hours plus self-directed study time.

Category II Languages that are significantly different from English, culturally or linguistically (Czech, Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Thai, etc.) require 44 weeks at the FSI (about 1900 hours of class and self-directed study time).

Category III Languages that are very difficult for English speakers (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) would require 88 weeks at the FSI (about 3,700 hours of class and self-directed study).

Obviously, the coursework at the Foreign Service Institute is very professional and demanding. Attempting to teach oneself a Category I language to a Level 3 Proficiency, utilizing a variety of techniques and resources, is likely to take a considerably longer period of time. Probably, most people with a job and personal life would have only a modest amount of daily study time available. One possible scenario: an hour of language study per day, five days per week, 50 weeks per year, might require 4 to 5 years for the average person to reach Level 3 Proficiency in a Category I language. Another scenario: it could take 3-6 years of formal education (elementary school, high school, college) to attain Level 3 Proficiency in a Category I language.

These examples are only estimates. Actual levels attained and speed of achievement would depend on a variety of factors. There is no easy or quick way to learn a foreign language. It will take an effective method of instruction, perhaps multiple methods, time and effort. The earlier one starts to learn a foreign language the better. Children, given a stimulating environment, can learn a second language very rapidly.

Now we have an idea of the amount of time it might take to reach Level 3 Proficiency. However, not all of us will have the need to attain that level. No matter what degree of foreign language performance we do require, there is another question yet to be raised.

What language learning methods or systems are you going to choose to reach your desired skill level?

You have a myriad of choices. How you choose to reach your goal should be dependent on the style of learning that best meets your individual needs. Is your learning style (the one that seems to have worked best for you in the past) more geared toward a visually based program, an auditory based program, or one that uses both along with various games and activities? Would you prefer a more formal classroom setting, a private tutor, or a computerized language learning system? If you want to learn as much as you can and as quick as you can, you might want to find a language immersion program. Or, do you want to do some of the above and live in-country for an extended period of time and learn more “on locale”?

Another factor to consider is the amount of money that you are willing to spend in your learning process. All of these methods and systems of study vary in price. Living abroad for an extended period would be the most costly, as well as possibly being the most effective. I encourage you to research the time and money involved in a number of these language learning methods and systems before you make your decision on how best to proceed.

Try our Traveler’s Tongue product line.

If you have not yet decided on your level of commitment to learning a new language, butyou are planning on visiting a foreign destination in the near future, RAO Inc. developed Traveler’s Tongue with you in mind. Consider making Traveler’s Tongue your first step to using and enjoying a foreign language. We encourage first time visitors to a foreign country to use as many of our 50 basic words and phrases as possible during their visit. This pocket-size card (also available via the Android and iOS market) is affordable, practical, and easy to use. Frequent and enthusiastic use of these words and phrases will greatly enhance your traveling experience, and the locals will appreciate your attempt to speak their language. Later, depending on your time and motivation, you can choose your next step to learning more of that language.

Acquiring another language can be an extremely valuable pursuit. What language to learn and the degree of proficiency required, how long it will take to attain that proficiency, and what is the best method of reaching that desired level of proficiency are questions that you need to consider carefully before launching your study of a new language.

Written by Ron Ohlhausen, RAO Inc.